Rabbi Navigates Polish-Jewish Minefield

By Rukhl Schaechter

Published August 08, 2007, issue of August 10, 2007.
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Warsaw, Poland - After one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Poland was vandalized last week, the chief rabbi of Poland found an unexpected source of help for the clean-up: 20 Polish art students and the mayor of the town himself, all of whom helped scrub the 100 gravestones spray-painted with black swastikas.

The incident, which took place in the southern Polish city of Czestochowa, revealed a great deal about the rabbi, Michael Schudrich, who has been managing the complex task of growing a Jewish community in this very Catholic country. Besides ministering to the needs of the congregants in his Warsaw synagogue — leading Sabbath and holiday services, officiating at circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals — Schudrich also serves as the official mediator with the Polish government and the Catholic Church, guides the Jewish day schools and summer camps throughout the country, and works to preserve the more than 1,400 cemeteries, Nazi death camps and mass graves.

“He has wings under his suit jacket,” Helise Lieberman, founding director of a new Jewish day school in Warsaw, told the Forward.

After the Holocaust, most of Poland’s surviving Jews either left Poland or assimilated into Polish society. Of those who stayed, many kept their Jewish identity a secret from their own children, fearing persecution by the repressive Communist government. Jewish community leaders today agree that if not for the fall of Communism in 1989, the Jewish population in Poland might very well have disappeared — a shocking thought, considering that before the outbreak of World War II, Poland constituted the second largest Jewish community in the world, with more than 3.3 million Jews. After the Holocaust, only 369,000 remained and today Jews number between 10,000 and 12,000.

What we see here in Poland today, Schudrich told the Forward in an interview in his office in Warsaw, “is a post-assimilationist community.”

Poland’s new democracy poses a challenge for the Jews as they learn to integrate their Jewish and Polish identities. At the same time, a new pride is taking root, as evidenced by the growing number of worshippers in Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue. Every Sabbath, between 50 and 70 people attend the Orthodox synagogue. Ten years ago, simply getting the minimum quorum of 10 men was a struggle.

Even more impressive: This past June, the Nozyk Synagogue, which the Nazis once used as a stable, hosted a double wedding, bar mitzvah and baby-naming ceremony — all in one weekend. For one of the two couples, Tsuriel and Ora Kuvarik, this was not their first wedding — they were married years ago, and already had an 8-year-old son — but rather an opportunity to finally experience a Jewish marriage ceremony: standing under the chupah (wedding canopy), receiving a ketuba (wedding contract) and breaking the glass.

But the community’s greatest success story may be Rabbi Maciej Pawlak, the 29-year-old principal of the Lauder-Morasha School, a Jewish day school in Warsaw founded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in 1994. Growing up in Szczecin in an assimilated Jewish family, he started exploring his roots at age 15. After turning to Schudrich, he began studying Judaism in earnest, and eventually went to learn more at New York’s Yeshiva University. Today he is the country’s first Polish-born rabbi ordained since the Holocaust.

Jewish community leaders all agree: None of this could have happened without Schudrich’s leadership. It began in 1973, when Schudrich came to Poland on a high school trip. His uncle, Henry Starer, a survivor of the Terezin and Birkenau concentration camps, had taught him about the Holocaust, and, Schudrich says, “everyone was saying there was nothing left in Poland, but I refused to believe it.” He returned several times, took up Polish and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. In 2000 he became the spiritual leader of the Nozyk Synagogue, and in 2004, the chief rabbi of Poland.

Tad Taube, whose Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture provides the largest financial support for Poland’s Jewish community, says Schudrich has “an infinite reservoir of patience and compassion. He’s seldom off his cell phone, helping a kid somewhere who lost his wallet or passport. He even lends money to Jewish students so they can study Judaism in the U.S. That’s why everyone trusts him and loves him.”

The admiration for Schudrich also exists among Polish officials — something he attributes to a tactical decision on his part: “When I’m dealing with people in the government,” Schudrich told the Forward, “I praise them publicly, and criticize them privately.”

There are also other signs of Jewish life in Warsaw. The 400-seat National Jewish theater, named after the late Yiddish actress Esther Rokhel Kaminska, features Yiddish plays, performed by a troupe of Jewish and non-Jewish actors. A Yiddish club meets regularly to read literary works in their original Yiddish. A progressive synagogue, Beit Warszawa, has also been attracting interest among Polish Jews seeking to explore their heritage.

But still, it is Schudrich’s Orthodox community that engenders the most awe. On the day of the double wedding, his ingenuity was once again in clear view. Instead of the pastel-colored tents usually used for outside weddings, a group of soldiers had set up three huge army tents. It may not have been pretty, but it saved the community a bundle. According to Jewish tradition, a wedding is open to the entire community, and indeed, over 400 people showed up. They chatted, laughed and nibbled the home-cooked delicacies under the dark olive tents. After years of living in the shadow of the Holocaust, the Jews of Warsaw finally have reason to celebrate.

Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor at the Forverts.

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