JewishGen.org, Friends of Jewish Heritage in Poland and The Matzevah Foundation are seeking Jewish students interested in the second annual JewishGen Future Scholars Fellowship program, which will take them to Poland this summer.
The subsidized trip is open to third- and fourth-year undergraduates, as well as graduate students, and will take place July 5 to 14.
The first fellowship program was held in 2019, but because of the COVID pandemic, it did not take place in 2020 or 2021. According to Steven D. Reece, founder of Atlanta-based Matzevah Foundation, “we choose to act as if we’re going, until we can’t,” referring to the always-present uncertainty created by the pandemic.
In announcing this summer’s 10-day immersive trip, JewishGen said that it will focus on the role of Jewish cemeteries today in preserving the memory and legacy of former Jewish communities in Poland. Participants will help clean up a Jewish cemetery, learn about symbols and epitaphs on tombstones, the general state of Jewish cemeteries in Poland after the Holocaust and efforts to preserve them from a communal, political and Jewish legal perspective. Six students will be chosen to join Polish college students in cleaning up a cemetery in Przysucha.
Prior to the work at the cemetery, the fellows will tour the Jewish Heritage Museum in New York before traveling to Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow. They will also tour Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the largest concentration camps in Poland.
The only cost to the students is a $350 non-refundable registration fee.
JewishGen reached out to Reece in 2018 about creating a fellowship program for students, he said. The Matzevah Foundation, launched in 2010, has been involved in 38 projects renovating Jewish cemeteries in Poland, working with as many as 1,350 volunteers from 13 countries. The typical project has about 10 volunteers on the ground.
Reece, an ordained Baptist minister who speaks fluent Polish and has lived in Poland, created the Foundation to facilitate reconciliation between Jews and Poles. “On a practical level, for me, the outcome isn’t the restoration of a cemetery, but the restoration of a relationship which was endearing. Jews gave birth to Christianity,” he said.
He said he asked himself, “if Jewish-Christian relations are strained, how do I work beyond the impasse? It should be Christians who take the first step because the Shoah happened during the Christian reign in a Christian country. Ninety percent of the people were Christian. The theological aftermath of the Shoah was very difficult. We were viewed as perpetrators. We need to understand the devastation that resulted from Christians standing idly by.”
Prior to attending theological school, Reece was a photojournalist. Now he sees himself as a builder of bridges between Christians and Jews, primarily in Poland. “We’re not talking about macro changes, but micro changes” in relations between the two cultures, he said. “The ideal is to find scholars who are interested in this field.”
The student group is being kept small to allow for more intimacy and create closer relationships with the Polish students, he explained. Two other leaders will also accompany Reece.
“Ultimately, we would like to create a university course that offers college credit,” he added, noting that the program will provide kosher food and honor Shabbat.
The European Union, of which Poland is a member, requires COVID vaccinations, although it’s too soon to know how stringent the testing requirements will be. “Our participants will need to be vaccinated,” said Reece. Anyone interested in more information should visit www.jewishgen.org/fellowship/.
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Friends of Jewish Heritage
- The Matzevah Foundation
- JewishGen Future Scholars Fellowship program
- Steven D. Reece
- COVID pandemic
- Matzevah Foundation
- Jewish cemeteries
- Jewish Heritage Museum in New York
- Concentration camps
- Jewish-Christian relations
- Shabbat European Union
- COVID vaccinations