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Polish Rabbi to Revive Yeshivot Despite Resurgent Anti-semitism

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A Hasidic rabbi from Jerusalem who serves as chief rabbi of Poland is planning to bring religious education back to a country with a proud Jewish past.

Rabbi Menachem Yoskowicz of Jerusalem, a native of Lodz, Poland, and follower of the Gerer rebbe, says he is not trying to restore Polish Jewry to its former greatness.

In fact, he may call for the evacuation of every last Jew from Poland if the Jews are increasingly threatened by resurgent anti-Semitism.

But in the meantime, Yoskowicz plans to bring yeshiva students from Israel to establish small yeshivot in Warsaw and Krakow, in a project funded by the Ronald Lauder Foundation.

Yoskowicz, who has been chief rabbi of Poland since May 1989, was ordained just after World War II in a yeshiva set up near the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. But he has been a businessman here for the past 40 years.

Now he plans to bring small groups of yeshiva students from Israel in their final year of studies, to form kollelim, or Talmud study groups, in Warsaw and Krakow, he said here in a recent interview.

The Warsaw kollel will be part of a Torah Culture Center that will comprise the community synagogue, a mikvah now under construction and a kosher restaurant that will open soon.

He has surprising plans for the Krakow kollel, which, he said, will serve “the children of Russian emigres who have settled in West Germany over the last 20 years. It is not good for these children that they stay in Germany.”

The Krakow kollel will be housed in a synagogue that was recently restored. There are very few active Jews left in Krakow.

SYNAGOGUE HAS BEEN VANDALIZED

The Lauder Foundation also restored the synagogue in Lodz. And the Jewish community of Lodz was able to get a large amount of money from the municipality for the restoration of the wall of the cemetery, which was desperately in need of repairs.

A few hundred Jews live in Lodz, Poland’s second-largest city.

In Warsaw, there are about 1,000 Jews officially registered with the religious community, most of them very old. Although several dozen people attend services at the synagogue on Shabbat, very few are observant.

“I am not planning to re-establish Polish Jewry,” Yoskowicz said. “But there are some Jews in Warsaw who want these facilities, and it is our job to provide it.”

Yoskowicz, who commutes between Warsaw and Jerusalem, was appointed chief rabbi with the approval of the Polish Ministry of Religions. His work is funded by the Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Yoskowicz said he is disturbed by the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Poland.

“Over the past few months, windows in the synagogue have been broken, slogans were painted on the walls of the community offices and grave-stones in the cemetery have been desecrated,” he said.

“Last month, when I was walking with a companion who was also dressed like me, in traditional Hasidic garb, a young man ran up to us, roughed up my companion and started shouting, ‘Jews! What are you doing in Poland?’ “

In an interview last month with The Washington Post, Yoskowicz said that “if anti-Semitism increases, there will be no other alternative but to evacuate the remaining Jews from Poland.

“It is not a problem to get 10,000 Jews out of here.”

He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “things haven’t reached this point yet. But look what happened in Entebbe. Our soldiers were ready to fly a thousand kilometers to save 80 Jews. If they have to do it again for a few thousand Jews, they’ll do it.”

Yoskowicz was referring to the successful rescue of hijacked airline passengers by Israeli commandos from the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976.

But thinking it through a bit more, he added, “Poland hasn’t been better off with most of the Jews gone. If the rest of them leave now, how will this help Poland’s standing in the world?”

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