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Reflections on the 8th Annual Bet Debora Conference

The 8th International Bet Debora Conference of European Jewish Women, Activists, Academics and Rabbis was not for women like me: those of us born and raised in the US, people whose bat mitzvahs were a given, who grew up with live grandparents and a great-grandmother, who do not have generational gaps on their family tree because of the Shoah. In short, women who haven’t had to fight for their Judaism.

But this is why I went to my fourth Bet Debora conference early this month: Because the conference collapses time and space. In four days you can find out what it feels like to be a progressive Jew in Poland who fears the right-wing turn will never turn back. You learn in passing which American feminist classics were published in Poland. You meet the very young and sharp sole employee of the Jewish museum in Kishinev, where you come from, meaning: that’s where your grandfather came from, the one whose initials you have. Because you hear stories, of Communist fathers and of middle-aged women who didn’t know what being Jewish meant until the Communists finally left. Because you hear that in Poland people buy photos of old rabbis and put a little money in front of them, an altar to prosperity, a shrine to economic success.  Because you realize the myriad of ways the Shoah and then the atheist state destroyed Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe and the myriad ways it’s coming back.

Because by just being in the conference city, Wroclaw, Poland, fka Breslau, Germany, you learn a lot about the effects of The War. Once the home of the third-largest Jewish population in Germany, it now has about 350 Jews who have made themselves known.

Wrocklaw has huge public squares ringed by buildings that are Baroque, or Soviet-bloc plain, or vaguely Art Nouveau. They look new despite their historical styles, because much was leveled in The War and rebuilt after. The town is alive: restaurants, cafes, bars, windows open to the sidewalk where you can get lody, ice cream, little English is heard on the street though there are English-language menus, and that sign of Western tourism: menus listing gluten-free options.

Because you learned at the 2015 meeting how the great Rabbi Leo Baeck’s silence about the first female rabbi kept her dead, dead, dead for years. Because this year a room erupts in an argument about whether what you just heard on the screen was “real Yiddish” or merely German. And it’s a quick, hot debate and then it dies. Because you learn that a woman whose family was deported from Sighet, Wiesel’s home town, is sending Romanian Jewish women to study in Israel

Because Bente Kahan gives a short concert about women. And you see a restored and newly scored Pola Negri silent film, The Yellow Ticket, about the limited options for an intellectual Jewish woman in pre-revolutionary Russia. Because a Serbian woman spoke in 2015 about the summer camp where kids learn about their Judaism while having fun, and about training teachers to lead Sunday School classes, and now she’s leading a project to introduce non-Jews to Judaism.

Because there’s a talk on Edith Stein,  who grew up in Breslau and became a Carmelite nun and then a victim of the Shoah and now a saint. She was drawn to the Carmelites, says Rabbi James Baaden, and incidentally to Catholicism. And then on a university building you discover a plaque that says, in Polish, German, and Hebrew, that Edith Stein studied there.

Because an artist from Dresden shows slides of her montages and sculptures that keep bits of memory alive. Because you don’t have to be embarrassed that you write about Jews and Jewish identity, that’s normal among these people, not like it is at home; because at the site of the Yiddish theater there’s a plaque and a general theater, and nearby a mural showing Marek Edelman, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who became a cardiologist, remained an anti-Zionist, a liberal who supported Solidarity and later, the war in Iraq. Because though it takes a while, you find the sign next to a parking lot commemorating the influential Jewish Theological Seminary destroyed in 1938 in Kristallnacht. And you get to spend time in the white and gilt and delicately stenciled White Stork Synagogue, restored thanks to the Bente Kahan Foundation, with no Torah on this bimah, because the sanctuary is used as much for cultural events as religious. Kahan is a steady and pleased presence at the conference, and her foundation is one of the sponsors.

Did you really have to come this far to find your people?

Perhaps.

A panel of Polish feminists note that a lot of the feminists in their country and yours are Jewish, and ask what do you make of that? And you hear criticism that the revival of Jewish studies and culture in Poland is “by non-Jews, for non-Jews, about the Jews,” says professor Marcin Wodzinski of the University of Wroclaw, who also says that his students fall into these categories, broadly: New Christians who want to study Judaism as an early form of Christianity; “children of Fiddler on the Roof” who see Jews as both exotic and close, and tend to drop the major because it’s not all Tevye and dancing; searchers who are looking for an alternate identity in a homogeneous Catholic country and who knows what exactly their grandfathers did in The War. Because the past hovers here sometimes, and roars at other times, and sometimes, it hides and you have to coax it out.

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Wow--what a fabulous spectrum of Jewish women in 2016 Europe..I have to go next year!

How to cite this page

Wisenberg, Sandi. "Reflections on the 8th Annual Bet Debora Conference ." 16 September 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/reflections-on-8th-annual-bet-debora-conference>.

Bet Debora, Conference Logo, 2016

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