KRAKOW, Poland — In Krakow, Poland, where Jewish life was nearly destroyed by Nazism and communism, Rabbi Eliezer Gurary and his wife Esther are hoping to bring it back, one Shabbat at a time.
Eliezer and Esther, granddaughter of Devorah and Rabbi Leibel Alevsky, who run the Chabad House of Cleveland, recently opened Chabad-Lubavitch of Krakow. The young couple was living in New York and decided they “were ready to go wherever” to open a Chabad center to help Jews, Esther explains. The rabbi at the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters offered them the chance to build a Chabad community in Krakow from the ground up.
The Jewish community in Krakow is small, Eliezer says, a little more than 500 people. “Jewish people here were afraid to say they are Jewish,” he notes. “After WW II, they even told their children they weren’t Jewish.” Eliezer recently met an 88-year-old man who told his son he was Jewish 10 years ago. “They don’t know what it means to be Jewish,” Eliezer says.
The new parents of an 8-month-old daughter, who were recently in Cleveland visiting Esther’s grandparents and great-grandparents, Rabbi and Mrs. Zalman Kazen, want to change that. They find out about Poles who may be Jewish in Krakow mostly by word-of-mouth and then focus on teaching them about Judaism. “We show them the Torah, explain mitzvot,” Eliezer explains. “Also, because they don’t know they are Jewish and may have married non-Jews, we bring back families (to their Jewish roots). We have a lot of family activities.”
Chabad operates out of the 350-year-old Isaac Synagogue once ransacked by Nazis. Today, the synagogue houses activities and Judaism courses along with a Jewish library and a small kosher shop. “Because there is little kosher food in Krakow, we have all the kosher products for the people who live here,” Eliezer says.
In addition, Esther and Eliezer sell Judaica and run a small kosher restaurant. The restaurant, Eliezer admits, is more for the 7 million tourists who visit Krakow annually than for the locals. “Tourists have a kosher place to eat, have Shabbat, and we have the synagogue for them to visit,” Eliezer says.
The Alevskys, Esther’s grandparents, visited the couple a year ago and were impressed by the work they had done during their first few months in Krakow. “They had just started, and it’s just wonderful work they are doing,” Devorah says. “It’s so important; people needed a place to stay and food, and they could just call them.”
Esther and Eliezer have begun classes to teach the elderly basic computer skills, and Eliezer teaches Sunday school to about 10 Jewish children. “I’m sure there are more,” he says. “I’m sure we will find them and bring them back to Jewish life, so they can be proud they are Jewish.” Eliezer also gives lectures and lessons on Judaism at the nearby university.
The young couple frequently entertains guests for Shabbat dinners, usually about 20 or 25 locals, but that number can double with students and tourists, Esther notes. “People will know a friend of a friend who is Jewish and bring him or her over,” Eliezer adds.
The couple plans big events to reach out to the community at the holidays. For Chanukah, they lit a large menorah on the street each night. “Many years ago during Chanukah there was a light in every window,” Esther says. “We are bringing the menorah back outside after 60 years.”
After visiting with their family in the U.S., Esther and Eliezer returned to Krakow, where they began Passover seders preparations. They planned two, one for the local Jewish community and another for Jewish tourists. “I’ve been getting tons of e-mails asking where a seder is,” Eliezer says. “I’m bringing in young rabbis to help me. We have a lot of work to do; it’s busy days lately.”