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Jessica Chait reflects on a year spent helping Warsaw's Jews

Jessica Chait reflects on a year spent helping Warsaw's Jews

Article from:
Cleveland Jewish News
Article date:
August 5, 2005
Herwald, Margi

Cleveland Jewish News


Jessica Chait just spent the past year baby-sitting a "teenager."

The Roslyn Z. Wolf Cleveland - JDC Fellow, Chait was in Poland helping,
working with, and living alongside, the Jews of Warsaw.

"The Jewish community in Warsaw goes back 1000 years," says Chait, 23. But,
because of the Holocaust and the Communist regime, "it's starting all over
again. History is lost. The community is basically 16 years old. And (the
community) behaves like a teenager. People are really searching for their
identity, but through religion which we (American Jews) think of as our

The Wolf Fellowship, established by the late Amb. Milton Wolf in honor of
his wife, provides for one young volunteer to spend a year helping develop
programs for the reemerging Jewish community in Warsaw. The Wolf Fellow is
placed through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)'s
Jewish Service Corps. Chait was the first Wolf Fellow selected and the only
one Amb. Wolf got to see in action before his death this past May.

"I'm really quite grateful to the ambassador and his family," says Chait,
speaking to the CJN from Iowa City, where she was taking a brief respite
from Warsaw life to attend a cousin's wedding. "I was so fortunate to have
known him. He understood the difference one Jew could make."

While Chait's primary task was to help plan programming for Warsaw's Jewish
community, particularly the elderly, the involvement of the Wolf family and
the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland in establishing the Fellowship
also tied Chait to Northeast Ohio. She kept a blog of her experiences in
Poland that was read and responded to by students at The Cleveland Hebrew
School. She also visited Cleveland in April and did presentations on Polish
Jewry for children at local Jewish schools.

Many Poles, Chait confesses, were confused by the fact that she worked
closely with and represented the Jews of Cleveland when she, in fact, hails
from San Antonio, Texas.

The Wolf Fellowship - her first full-time job - provided Chait an apartment
in Warsaw - her first time living on her own. "It's tiny; it looks very
Communist-style." She was also given a stipend equivalent to the income of
the average Pole: $400 a month.

Although she often worked from home, her apartment building is only a
10-minute walk from the Orthodox synagogue where she had a small office.
The synagogue is the center of Warsaw's "quite small but diverse" Jewish
community. Chait estimates only a handful of Jews are religiously
observant. There is also a Chabad presence. It is the more secular Jews of
Warsaw who are just learning to connect to their heritage through such
options as birthright israel trips for young adults.

"A lot (of those with a Jewish heritage) were brought up Catholic," she
notes. "They have been baptized, and they go to church. They didn't know
they were Jewish, and now they want to know more about it. But being
Catholic is part of being a Pole."

At the Lauder Morasha Jewish School, one of the places Chait worked in
Warsaw, students can learn a Judaic curriculum regardless of their level of
observance or lineage. While the school's education is considered
top-notch, Chait notes that some families were leery of having a school
break over Passover because they were afraid for their children to stand
out at a time when Catholics would still be in school.

Still, Chait says, she had no personal experience with anti-Semitism in
Poland. "I told people I was Jewish, and sometimes I wore a Jewish star
(necklace). (Anti-Semitism) was something to be aware of, but not afraid

Chait's first challenge upon arriving in Poland was to organize the
Volunteer International Program Conference, a three-day event in Krakow for
staff and lay leaders of Jewish organizations around the world. The idea,
she explains, was to help smaller or emerging Jewish communities, mostly in
Europe, learn how to better attract and utilize volunteer leadership.

"We take for granted that everyone knows about tsedakah (philanthropy) and
tikkun olam (repair of the world)," she says. "Volunteering is a new
concept in Eastern Europe."

To illustrate the point, she notes that many of the elderly Polish Jews she
worked with in Warsaw couldn't believe she was a volunteer. "They were so
worried I wouldn't get paid and wouldn't have enough to eat!"

At the conference, Chait brought together such diverse groups as a very
experienced delegation of English volunteers with a 25-year-old man who was
the first volunteer for his organization in Estonia.

After the conference, in January, Chait started her primary job as the Wolf
Fellow: running a Jewish seniors club. The group consisted of between 15-25
elderly Poles, all of whom survived the war either by moving to Russia or
being protected by a righteous gentile, she says.

The seniors club was meeting three times a week "just for tea; there was no
Jewish content," Chait explains. When she took over the group, she set
about planning specific Jewish-related activities for the members,
including intergenerational programs with Lauder School students.

"A lot of people told me (Poles) would be cold," Chait admits. Her elderly
group members were "reserved; like any relationship, I had to gain their
trust. Society there is very different, but once you make friends, you have
a family Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I have 25 grandparents."

In the fall, Chait will pursue a master's degree at New York University;
she hopes to earn a dual degree, one in nonprofit management with an
international focus, and a second in Jewish studies. She is being funded by
a United Jewish Communities FEREP scholarship, which is available to
students who plan to work in the Jewish federation system. Chait's
particular FEREP scholarship is supported by Cleveland's Federation, so she
is obligated upon receipt of her master's degree to work in Cleveland for a
few years.

Chait was interested in Jewish communal life as a career when she graduated
from The University of Texas in 2004. "I knew my year in Poland would make
it or break it," she admits.

Chait left Warsaw Aug. 1 and turned over the Wolf Fellowship to Jordan
Namerow, a 22-year-old Wellesley graduate from Ridgewood, N.J.

"My advice to Jordan is LEARN POLISH," Chait laughs. The young people she
met and befriended in Warsaw all spoke English. But the elderly members of
her club only spoke Polish or sometimes Russian, German or Yiddish. Chait
had to learn conversational Polish "if I wanted to get to know them and
have a relationship with them. They weren't going to learn my language!

"The hardest thing is when someone tries to talk about the past or their
feelings about the Jewish community," she continues. Those intricate
subjects "were where I most felt the language barrier. It was the hardest
because that's what I wanted to know about the most."

One of the seniors in Chait's social club kept her in check, frequently
correcting her Polish grammar when it wasn't up to snuff. The older woman
"decided she'd keep correcting me as I went along, and I started laughing,"
Chait recalls.

"In Polish, (the woman) said very seriously, 'Jessica, do you want to learn
or not?' It was just like a grandparent!"