Warsaw — Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, was on hand to affix the mezuza at the entrance to Warsaw’s first Jewish community center at its grand unveiling, October 27. The act of opening the building and cutting the ribbon was not his, however, but given over to a young boy while Schudrich helped hold the band in place.
The paint was only just dry on the modest but modern whitewashed building, located behind one of Warsaw’s main pedestrian thoroughfares right in the center of the city. Hundreds of people from Warsaw’s growing and diverse Jewish community attended the opening night: secular and religious, families and young people, Anglo and Israeli expats, Poles rediscovering a lost heritage.
Kosher food and wine were also served — “the JCC wanted to be kosher,” Schudrich told the Forward. And in today’s Poland, amid a swelling rebirth of Jewish life, that was something Schudrich didn’t take for granted.
This past July, the Polish parliament upheld a ban on shechita, or kosher ritual slaughter, by a vote of 222–178. The defeated bill would have reversed a ruling by Poland’s high court mandating the stunning of animals before slaughter to avoid cruelty in the slaughter process. Kosher slaughter, like halal slaughter under Islamic law, requires an animal to be conscious when it is killed. The court’s November 2012 ruling overrode a 2004 exemption given to the Jewish and Muslim communities on grounds of religious freedom.
But that is not the only fly in the ointment. The JCC’s festive opening occurs against the backdrop of a stubborn persistence in Poland of latent — and sometimes not-so-latent — anti-Semitism, calling into question just how secure a Jewish revival can be.
In the past year alone, the Jewish cemeteries in Warsaw and Myślenice have been vandalized; gravestones in Blonie, Kalisz and Otmuchowie have been defiled and destroyed, and anti-Semitic graffiti has been scrawled at the monument to resistance hero Mordechai Anielewicz in the Warsaw ghetto and on the synagogues in Gdansk and Zamoc.
There are routine incidents of anti-Semitism, too, at soccer matches in Lodz and Krakow, and statements from public figures such as prominent historian Krzysztof Jasiewicz, who argued in April that the Holocaust “was only possible because the Jews themselves participated in the murder of their own people.”
When asked by the Forward about the opening of the JCC set against manifestations of Polish anti-Semitism, Schudrich appeared irritated and tetchy. “What anti-Semitic incidences are you referring to?” he said. Reminded of the recent upholding of the prohibition on shechita, Schudrich replied, “This has nothing to do with Polish anti-Semitism,” declining to speak further.
The gutting, refurbishment and repurposing of the unassuming structure that will now house the JCC cost just $60,000, money raised with support from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. As we stepped onto the street, where the JCC celebration had spilled out from the main hall, Schudrich stressed the importance of the new center for the “re-emergence of Jewish life in Poland” and the quest to bring Polish Jews back toward their Jewish identity and their bonds with the Jewish people.