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NY boy has Bar Mitzvah in Polish town his grandfather once fled

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Zamosc Synagogue in Poland had not hosted a Jewish ceremony in more than 75 years, until New Yorker Jacob Wisnik traveled to his grandfather's hometown for his Bar Mitzvah.

There hadn’t been a Jewish service in the Zamosc Synagogue since before the Holocaust, until earlier this month when a 13-year-old New York boy came to the city his grandfather fled in 1935 to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah - and honor the struggle of his family.

“My grandfather, Abram Szlak, who was born in this town, would have become a Bar Mitzvah in this very synagogue if not for World War II,” said Jacob Wisnik, a youth with a ready smile who writes guitar music and poetry. 

Jacob’s maternal grandfather, born in 1935, escaped the Nazis as a small child when his family fled to the Soviet Union, as did approximately half the 12,000 Jews then living in Zamosc, located 154 miles east of Warsaw near the Ukrainian border. The Nazis murdered those who remained.

"My grandfather, Abram Szlak, who was born in this town, would have become a Bar Mitzvah in this very synagogue if not for World War II.”

- Jacob Wisnik

Jews had been in Zamosc since 1588, and nearly half of its 25,000 citizens were of the faith before the Nazi occupation. Today, Zamosc has no Jews. Its synagogue, once the spiritual center of a vibrant community, is the city's sole link to its Hebrew heritage. The synagogue, more than 400 years old, was severely damaged and vandalized during the Nazi occupation. Now restored, it is a cultural center used for lectures and concerts.  

Torah chanting had not echoed from the synagogue's walls 75 years until Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah, which opened with the singing of Ma Tovu. Rabbi David Holz, the Wisnik family’s rabbi from Westchester County, led the service, accompanying the songs with a guitar. 

The words of Ma Tovu are from the Book of Numbers. The prophet Balaam, instead of cursing the Israelites as the Moabite king, Balak, commissioned him to do, brings forth God’s blessing for Israel: How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. 

These words, turning an intended curse into a blessing, were at the core of Jacob’s Torah reading. Using a silver pointer to read in Hebrew from the scroll, Jacob chanted: Ma tovu ohleh-cha, Yaacov, mishk’notecha Yisrael!

Sunlight from the windows on the synagogue’s high vaulted ceiling filled the room. A large Hanukkah menorah – a nine-branched candelabrum – was in the background.

People have tried to destroy the Jews for thousands of years, Jacob said in his speech, as the Nazis tried during the Holocaust. But the Jewish people survive. That was the message in his Torah reading, and his Bar Mitzvah in Zamosc was proof the attempted destruction hadn’t succeeded.

“Jake, you are the newest link in the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition through three thousand years, from Moshe (Moses) to this day,” the rabbi said. And Jacob was linked to his grandfather in this chain.

Jacob’s father, Robert, noted that all the family ancestors were from Poland where Jews lived for a thousand years. “Jake, all of your ancestors are proud of you today,” Robert said.

Jacob’s mother, Eva, and her parents came to the United States in 1968 when the Polish communist government launched an anti-Semitic campaign. Jacob’s father’s family came from Poland to the United States in the 1920’s.

Of the 70 Bar Mitzvah guests, 55 were non-Jews. Most had never attended a Jewish service.

It was a new experience for high school teacher, Beata Pisarczyk-Zabicel. “I thought it would be more formal,” she said. “I was surprised by the guitar … and the clapping and singing. It was so joyful. I wanted to sing along.”

Pisarczyk-Zabicel’s student, Ewa Broszko, 18, said she’d read about Judaism, but actually seeing the Bar Mitzvah made her studies real.

Following the service and a luncheon celebration, Pisarczyk-Zabicel’s students led a tour of Zamosc that focused on its Jewish history.

The idea for the tour came from the Forum for Dialogue, a Polish non-profit organization that fosters Polish-Jewish dialogue, promotes tolerance through education, and seeks to eradicate anti-Semitism.

There were 3.3 million Jews in Poland before the Holocaust. Only 10,000 remain. Most young Poles have never met a Jew and are ignorant of the once vibrant Jewish life in Poland. The Forum seeks to teach them about the Jewish history in their own towns and villages.

In 2013, the Forum invited Jacob’s parents to Poland. The Wisniks came away with an appreciation of Poland’s Jewish past. Their experience influenced the decision to have Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah in Zamosc.

The Forum fights anti-Semitism, which remains a problem in Poland. Anti-Semitic graffiti appeared on the Zamosc Synagogue last September, and this June on a synagogue in a town fifty miles north of Zamosc.

Such incidents underscore the importance of the Forum’s work in educating Poles about the Jewish religion and the country’s rich Jewish history.

Proud of his roots in this history, Jacob looked to the future with optimism. “Perhaps my Bar Mitzvah is the first of many more in Zamosc,” he said.