Q+A with Jonathan Ornstein

April 7, 2016 by Toni Susskind
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Jonathan Ornstein has served as the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow since its opening in 2008. A QandA with Toni Susskind.

Jonathan Ornstein

Jonathan Ornstein

Ornstein is a founding member of “Przymierze”, the Krakow Association of Christians and Jews where he serves on the management board. He also serves on the boards of the Krakow branch of the Child Survivors of the Holocaust, JCC Global, and the European Association of Jewish Community Centres. In 2014, Jonathan was awarded the Cohon Award for services benefiting the Jewish People and, in 2015, he was awarded the “Bene Merito” medal by the Polish Foreign Ministry for his work promoting Poland.

Were you born in Poland?

No. I grew up in New York city and was raised Orthodox. I completed a political Science degree and was starting a second one in law when I decided to make Aliyah. I wound up on the Kibbutz Yod Vatah and went the army for a few years as a combat soldier in Lebanon and Gaza. When I completed that I went back to Kibbutz and met a Polish woman. I fell in love and decided to move to Poland. I had never been before and didn’t really now what I was doing. I got a job teaching Hebrew at the University of Krakow in the department of Jewish studies  which is odd as so many non Jews are getting Master degrees in Jewish studies.

My marriage didn’t work out, but I fell in love in Krakow and decided to stay. 7 years ago they were building the JCC and I became the director.

What is the JCC?

Jewish Community Centre. In 2002 Prince Charles was in Krakow on a state visit and as part of his visit, they brought him to the Jewish quarter of Krakow and he met with survivors. He was moved by their history and asked them what he could do for them. They said had a synagogue, a place to prey, but no place to be together, like a senior citizens centre. He helped them realise their dream and went back to the UK and got involved with an organisation called World Jewish Relief. They took a look at Krakow and realised that there were a lot of young Jewish people who were beginning to find their roots, who grew up without knowing. Prince Charles, brought this wish to build a retirement home, but world Jewish relief suggested maybe do something more forward like build a JCC and draw people out in the community. Prince Charles agreed and it was opened by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall in 2008.

What’s he like?

Very nice, he has his own kippah with the royal crest on it. He was a very committed man and without him we would not have had the Community Centre.

Did many people grow up not knowing they were Jewish?

Although over 90% of the Jewish pollution was wiped out during world war II, over 300-350,000 Jews survived. Over 50% left right after the war, but not all the survivors left. Jewish life limped on with over 100,000 Jews. In 1968, after the 6 day war, Jews were forced out of the country. Jews were considered not loyal, Zionists, so the Jews in Poland chose leave or to stay and go underground. People changed their names, they did not tell their children that they were Jewish.  Now the children and grand children of the Poles who stayed after 1968, are finding out they are actually Jewish and they are acting on it.

And then?

1989 Communism ends and the country is free for the first time in 50 years. One of the first thing is that the non-Jewish Poles become interested in their history. They want to understand what it is to be Polish, but to do so, they need to understand Jewish history the country, so suddenly all these non Jews become fascinated with all things Jewish and they begin a Jewish studies department at the University and the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow, which was started by two non-Jewish people and is now one of the biggest Jewish festivals in the whole world.

1000’s of people attend every year and it is based in Kashmir, the Jewish quarters. It is the largest cultural event of the year. This is the backdrop of the non-Jewish Poles who feel like the country lost something when the Jews were killed and forced out.

How many Jews are there now in Poland?

Between 20,000- 100,000. I think there are a lot of people who have Jewish roots and don’t necessarily know about them.

Since the JCC opened, do you think there has been a surge in numbers in the Jewish population?

People are finding out that they have Jewish roots, but they don’t understand that makes them Jewish. A lot of people will say I am not Jewish but my mother is. They don’t understand, for them it is more like a religion and don’t get what’s it like to be Jewish. Until the JCC opened there were little paths for people to reconnect Jewishly. There is an Orthodox synagogue in Krakow, but that can be intimidating for someone who just found out they were Jewish. We are open, have a visitor centre and are non threatening, which allows people to engage and explore their roots. They don’t have to be religious to be connected to Judaism.

What does the JCC do?

We are a combination of community centre, a synagogue, a Hillel, which is the student centre and a visitor centre, we had over 80,000 pass through the building last year. Our basic goal is to rebuild the Jewish Community of Krakow. We have a nursery 2 days a week, a Sunday school, a student club, a seniors club, with 70-80 Holocaust survivors who are members. They have their own dedicated space. We have over 600 members  We do Kosher Shabbat dinners and have a Kosher kitchen. We have a Shabbat dinner for over 70-80 people per week. We celebrate all Jewish holidays, have a Jewish choir, run Yiddish and Arabic classes, a geologist on staff. There are conversion classes going on with 10-15 people involved at a time. It is central to Jewish life. All this is an hours drive from Auschwitz.

Are any non Jews involved?

We have over 50 non-Jewish volunteers, young people who are interested in Jewish life and excited by the prospect of finding out more about Jewish life. Additionally our centre is seen as a hip and thriving part of society.

What is the ride of the living?

It is a one day bicycle ride from Auschwitz to the JCC and is about 50-60 miles. It began in 2014 with 15 participants.  This event raised enough money to take 30 Holocaust survivors to Israel. In 2015 we had 85 people participate from all over the world. One bike rider was an 80-year-old Auschwitz survivor. He came to Krakow and did the event, riding along the same path that he walked when he was liberated as a 10 year old. Now he came back with his son and two grand daughters from Israel. This year it will be held June and we are expecting over 150 participants from all over the world. It is great as it is a positive affirmation of life. You are going from Auschwitz, a place of loss and darkness, to the JCC, a place of colour and hope.  It is remembering our past, but always looking towards our future.

As part of the Can we talk about Poland? public program series, Melbourne’s Jewish Museum is presenting a lecture this Sunday 10 April by Jonathan Ornstein, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow.


2 Responses to “Q+A with Jonathan Ornstein”
  1. Wojciech Pisarski says:

    A very interesting article. However, the mistake where the pre-war population of Poland is referred to as “pollution” is very regrettable.

  2. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    The JCC sounds great, full of vitality and so diverse in what it offers. It’s lovely to hear that Jews are accepted as Jews there, even if their interest is a burgeoning one without the trappings so many Jews brought up within a Jewish environment have, and take for granted. It seems the JCC creates possibilities for people, as well as a stable atmosphere in which to be.
    I enjoyed reading this interview with Jonathan Ornstein and congratulate him on the work he’s doing. With his own background, which is also diverse, and the challenges he has met with it, he would, I think, be the perfect person for heading up this Jewish organisation. [And good on you, Prince Charles! A much maligned man, treated with undeserved contempt laced with laughter. You don’t have to be a monarchist to admire what a single individual ‘Royal’ does, and he takes life and the world seriously, it seems.]

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