(JTA) — On the way to his first appearance as Krakow’s new chief rabbi, Eliezer Gurary passed a group of young demonstrators holding signs with messages of affection for Jews.
“I [heart] Jews,” one sign read.
“Yes to tolerance,” read another.
But the demonstration last week outside Krakow’s Old Synagogue was no support rally.
Organized by non-Jewish university students on the day of Gurary’s installation, the protest was sparked by the rabbi’s recent assertion in an interview with the Israeli news site Arutz 7 that all non-Jews dislike Jews.
Gurary’s statement, which he has denied making despite a recording attesting to its accuracy, provoked an unusually strong rebuke from local Jews, with passionate condemnations from 12 lay leaders and rabbis who said his words were harmful.
Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Centre of Krakow, called on Gurary to resign because he was “caught lying” about the quotes.
The interview by Gurary, a Chabad rabbi who has lived in Krakow for eight years, upset local Jews in part because it appeared to signal a dramatic reversal from the approach of his predecessor. Boaz Pash was a popular figure known for his outreach and openness in a country where many non-Jews have discovered they have Jewish roots that were lost over decades of assimilation and communist repression.
Pash quit the post last year, but his supporters say that community leaders had him replaced because they feared his outreach agenda would bring in new members who might weaken their hold on the community and its real-estate holdings.
“From outside, it may seem like the controversy is all about outreach, but the real issue is control,” said Anna Makowka Kwapisiewicz, Pash’s former assistant and the co-founder of Czulent, an organization of young Krakow Jews.
“That family pushed out the excellent Rabbi Pash because he drew in too many new faces whom they couldn’t control,” Ornstein said. “Then they brought in a rabbi who believes in exclusion and isolation to facilitate their task of preventing community growth just to preserve their dynasty at the top. That’s what caused the uproar.”
Tadeusz and Helena Jakubowicz did not reply to numerous requests from JTA for comment, but Lewinger denied the accusation, saying that “almost anyone” can join the community if they have at least one Jewish parent. Membership policies, Lewinger said, are an attempt to keep the community “authentically Jewish and not turn into a touristic display for and by non-Jews, like Ornstein’s Jewish Community Centre.”
The Jewish Community of Krakow, which has 130 members and is run by a five-person board, may be safeguarding more than just its Jewish identity.
Since the 1990s, the community has come into possession of several restituted properties that had been seized from Jewish communities during the Holocaust. The community did not respond to requests for information about its budget and real-estate holdings, but a former community leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the organization owns dozens of properties worth more than $10 million.
“The power that comes with handling such vast property is both how and why the Jakubowiczes created an inner circle of loyal community members who are sometimes dependent of them,” the former leader said. “They keep membership at a minimum because that small circle is easier to control.”
Pash would not comment on the dispute, but in his farewell letter to congregants last year he blamed Lewinger for “ruining the atmosphere in Krakow and scar[ing] people away” from the community — factors that “in a major degree” led to his resignation.
In interviews, several people said the Jakubowicz family had Pash replaced because his outreach efforts had led unaffiliated Jews to apply for membership in the community, which may have diluted the family’s power. The votes of registered community members determine the makeup of the board.
One young woman told JTA that she applied for community membership in 2008 after becoming acquainted with Pash through his outreach to young people with Jewish roots. But her application was rejected because the documents she submitted did not satisfy the membership requirement of having at least one Jewish parent or grandparent.
Speaking to JTA on condition of anonymity, the woman said the rejection was arbitrary.
“I know it was false because the following year, I used the exact same documents to make aliyah,” she told JTA, referring to Israel’s guarantee of citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.
Ornstein’s Jewish Community Centre, which opened in 2008, has 400 members. Many of them are excluded from registering as community members, he said, even though they meet all the requirements. Ornstein said Pash served them, too, not only the registered members.
“Rabbi Pash is a hippie rabbi, very informal, very welcoming, and that helped him work with unaffiliated Jews like me,” the young woman said. “He kind of created an alternative community, but his bosses didn’t like that.”
Lewinger denied that the membership restrictions have anything to do with real estate, which he claims are a drain on communal finances. But he did confirm that he and Pash clashed over the outreach issue.
In addition to serving as chief rabbi, Pash also was an emissary for the Israeli nonprofit Shavei Israel, which aims to reconnect those with Jewish roots to the Jewish community.
Krakow is an important area for the group because it was home to hundreds of thousands of Jews before the Holocaust. Many descendants of survivors lost their Jewish connections during the decades of communist rule, but have slowly begun to rediscover them following the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Pash was more concerned with catering to non-Jews than to his own community,” Lewinger said. “He was never at shul.”
One thing in particular that bothered Lewinger was the Jewish learning seminars that Pash would hold in pubs in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter now known for its sizzling night life.
Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund said the bar crawls were part of Pash’s effort to go where the Jews are.
“Those pubs were packed with young Jews as well as non-Jews with Jewish roots, and he got everyone singing Jewish songs and having a positive Jewish experience, which is an important first step towards making them feel welcome in the community,” Freund said.
But to Lewinger, the scenes were symbols of the way Krakow Jewish life has been turned into a cultural attraction.
“I don’t want to be put on display in a glass cage,” Lewinger said. “I just want to go to shul and find a rabbi there.”