For Krakow native, Jewish roots came up after a JCC party

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Growing up in Krakow, Kasia Leonardi had no religion to speak of and no inkling whatsoever that she might have Jewish roots.

Even after her sister, Martha, did some digging a while ago and found out they had Jewish family members a generation or so back, Leonardi had no interest in pursuing the matter. Nor was she inclined to follow in her older sister’s footsteps when Martha got involved with the JCC Krakow, preparing salads for the Shabbat dinners and then cooking in the JCC’s small kitchen after it was built four years ago.

And Leonardi was definitely disinclined to study with a rabbi for an Orthodox conversion like her sister did.


Jonathan Ornstein pops the question to Kasia Leonardi. photo/jcc krakow

Now Leonardi, 35, who once planned to be an artist, is chef at the JCC. Why the turnaround? It all started after Martha, 36, “dragged” her sister to a Hanukkah party at the JCC. That was the turning point, Leonardi said in a June 28 interview during the Jewish Culture Festival, where she was leading cooking workshops and preparing for a JCC Shabbat dinner for 500 people later that week.

An even more meaningful change in Leonardi’s life: She is now Jewish, after completing a Conservative conversion last November in New York.

JCC executive director Jonathan Ornstein, 46, who met Leonardi at the Hanukkah party, has been a significant part of her journey. The New York City native has built the vibrant Jewish community center from the ground up, starting as its sole employee eight years ago and overseeing “exponential growth in terms of what we’re doing here.”

Ornstein was headed to law school when he deferred his studies and moved to Israel in 1994, where he served as a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. He was living on a kibbutz in the Negev when he fell in love with a Polish woman. That led to his move to Poland, where the romantic relationship faded but where Ornstein developed a strong attachment to Krakow and took a job teaching Hebrew at Jagiellonian University.

Today he oversees a bustling JCC with more approximately 40 employees, a corps of 55 non-Jewish volunteers, 600 members and year-round programs for all ages, including weekly Shabbat dinners for about 60 local Jews and visitors from around the world. Later this month, construction is scheduled to begin on classrooms for an early childhood center, notes Michelle Ores, in town for the festival and board president of the New York-based Friends of JCC Krakow.

Following the Hanukkah party, Leonardi got more closely involved with the JCC, especially with its director. “We spoke about children, and I thought [the conversion] was a good idea, to make it clear,” Leonardi says.

She met with Ornstein’s former rabbi in New York City, who began preparing her for the beit din, or rabbinic court, that authorized her conversion. This summer, “I will go back to have an aliyah at the synagogue,” she says.

Leonardi attends synagogue in Kazimierz and has been to Israel several times. “I was connected to this [Jewish] world before I made my conversion,” she explains.

Her sister is pleased with Leonardi’s change of heart, and their mother (who volunteers at the JCC, making cakes for Shabbat dinners) “is very, very happy for me,” she says.

Leonardi , in fact, is just the sort of person the JCC wants to reach out and touch. “Our primary purpose is to welcome people with Jewish roots back into the Jewish world,” says Ornstein, who took Leonardi’s conversion on a deep personal level.

How deep? He surprised her with a marriage proposal before 500 witnesses on July 1.

Attendance at the JCC’s Shabbat dinner mushrooms during the Jewish Culture Festival. On this occasion, approximately 500 guests filled a nearby hall lined with long tables decorated with white tablecloths and fresh flower centerpieces.

After bringing Leonardi on stage at the conclusion of the dinner to thank her for preparing the food, Ornstein got down on one knee, offered a ring and asked her to marry him.

Her answer, of course, was yes.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.