WARSAW, Dec. 13 (JTA) — The Polish Jewish community has turned to an American as its new spiritual leader, filling a post left empty since 1999. The Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland appointed New York-born Michael Schudrich as chief rabbi of Poland late last week. Schudrich would become the first person to hold Poland’s top rabbinic position since the resignation of Menachem Joskowicz some five years ago. Asked about the significance of an American rabbi assuming Poland’s highest title, Piotr Kadlcik, the union’s acting president, expressed no reservations. “We have no Polish rabbis now, though we hope within two years to graduate two rabbis from the yeshiva,” he told JTA. “We’ve known Rabbi Schudrich for years, and he knows Poland.” Schudrich, an energetic, bearded man with a perpetual smile, first came to Poland in 1973 as part of a United Synagogue Youth program that traveled throughout what was then Communist Eastern Europe. Intrigued by what he had seen, Schudrich — who has four Polish grandparents — returned to Poland in 1976. He found cemeteries, shuls and, most importantly, Jews his own age who were working to create Jewish identities under the oppressive Communist regime. “I realized then that the only difference between us was a decision our grandparents had made,” Schudrich told JTA. In 1990 Schudrich returned again to Poland, this time as a rabbi with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, an organization committed to rebuilding Jewish life in Eastern Europe and providing Jewish education in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Since 2000, Schudrich has served as chief rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz, two of Poland’s largest Jewish communities. Kadlcik said that the union, an umbrella organization, had been considering appointing a chief rabbi for some time. “We felt all our communities needed proper rabbinic supervision,” he said. Schudrich will “cover the needs of the religious communities throughout Poland and act as a help in resolving issues between community members.” Joskowicz, Schudrich’s predecessor, is a survivor of the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, and was a controversial figure who clashed with the younger generation of Polish Jews who were discovering and rediscovering their Jewish roots. He had held the chief rabbi position since the fall of communism. Because of the displacement of Jews during World War II and the subsequent Communist regime — under which it was difficult to be a practicing Jew — it’s difficult to count the number of Jews in Poland today. Schudrich, though, estimated that the country that was once home to 3.5 million Jews now has more than 20,000. The number is growing, he said. But Poland’s burgeoning Jewish communities sorely lack supervision and guidance. The Jewish community in Krakow has been served by Rabbi Sasha Pecaric, who is leaving Poland this year after translating the Torah into Polish and guiding young members of the community in their quest for Jewish learning. Rabbi Ivan Caine, a retired Conservative Rabbi from Philadelphia, served the Jewish community in Wroclaw in western Poland for a time, but no longer holds that position following a series of internal conflicts in the community. “We need someone who can be responsible for helping all aspects of Jewish life here, from cemeteries to synagogues to soup kitchens,” said Simcha Keller, head of the Jewish community of Lodz and vice president of the union. “Rabbi Schudrich has been here for 15 years, so we feel he’s not an American rabbi, he’s Polish.” Keller said Schudrich’s appointment was the best solution, and that it was no coincidence he was elected during Chanukah, a time of light and happiness. Schudrich, who speaks Polish and is often described as a mediator between differing factions, feels his appointment comes at an important time in the development of Poland’s Jewish community. “For a long time it was black; people thought it was over and they had no hope,” he said. “Then we had a series of firsts: first Bar and Bat Mitzvah, first wedding. Now we’re at the point where we’ve had the last first. “Human nature is that when you’re in a bad situation and things start to go better, you want everything to be perfect immediately,” he continued. “There’s hope now, and we need to figure out where to go from here.” Schudrich said that in effect, he already has been serving as chief rabbi, and that making it official is a good step. “As our communities mature, it’s beneficial to have someone who can speak to the government and the outside world,” he said. Stanislaw Krajewski, among the young Jews Schudrich met on an early trip to Poland, has been a friend for decades and now serves on the union’s board. “There is no one who rivals Michael in terms of knowledge about the communities throughout the country, and he is someone we can trust,” Krajewski said.