Warsaw — On the surface, it appears to be a historic gain for Reform Jewry in Europe.
Ec Chaim, a congregation identified as Progressive – the European term for Conservative or Reform – is set to join the Orthodox-led umbrella organization of Warsaw’s Jewish community. Poland’s chief Orthodox rabbi is hailing the move as a potential model for resolving friction between Orthodox and Reform communities on the continent.
But some Reform leaders in Warsaw affiliated with the European Union for Progressive Judaism are dismissing the move as a ploy to restore the Orthodox monopoly over Jewish life in Poland.
The Ec Chaim congregation “does not really exist and is not independent,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, senior rabbi for Beit Polska, a national umbrella organization for Polish Progressive congregations, including Warsaw’s Beit Warszawa synagogue. “It is a Potemkin village.”
Personal rivalries, official recognition and money are all behind the fight pitting the Orthodox-led Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland – known locally as Twarda, after the street where it is headquartered – and Beit Polska, the main Progressive organization in the country.
For a long time, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities was the only officially recognized Jewish religious association in Poland, which has approximately 6,000 Jews. As in many other countries in Europe, official religious associations are eligible for government money. In 2009, the Polish government recognized Beit Polska as an official Jewish religious association.
The Union of Jewish Religious Communities fought the change, going to court in an effort to overturn the decision by arguing that the registration of a second Jewish community in Poland violates commitments given by the government. The union says it is multidenominational, not Orthodox, noting that the Progressive Ec Chaim is under its umbrella. Union officials say their group should be the sole representative of Polish Jewry, distributing any government funding proportionately according to the size of Poland’s Jewish communities.
Opponents of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities argue that its inclusion of Ec Chaim is little more than a feint and a scheme to hold onto a larger share of government funding.