PRAGUE (Aug. 20)
Did you hear the one about the four rabbis? An American, an Israeli, a Swede and a Pole draw straws for positions, each hoping to get the congregation of their dreams. The good news: They all win. The surprise: They’re all going to Poland.
That’s how the joke could easily go, but it’s not a joke, as starting this month four rabbis are newly offering their services in Poland, setting up shop just in time for the High Holidays.
Working in the Orthodox movement with Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, Boaz Pash of Israel is in Krakow, Yitzak Rappaport of Sweden is in Wroclaw and Matityahu Pawlak of Poland is in Warsaw.
Meanwhile, serving as the first full-time rabbi for country’s only liberal congregation, Burt Schuman of New York is at Warsaw’s Beit Warszawa.
The sudden influx of rabbis — more than Poland has had for many decades — should help continue to revive Jewish life in the country, said Schudrich.
“There are so many people out there who still haven’t explored their Jewish roots,” he said.
An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Poles identify as Jewish, but Schudrich is convinced that the real number is five to 10 times that figure.
In Warsaw, he said the Jewish community has more than doubled in the last three years to include 500 members, with the median age dropping from 70 to 45. “If you consider all of the elderly Jews who passed away in the last few years, then you can really see how much we have grown,” Schudrich said.
There are still many Jews who are not aware of their ancestry because their parents hid it from them due to the pervasive anti-Semitism they experienced, the rabbi said. There are also those who have recently found out they are Jewish and still have no idea what to do about it, he added.
The new rabbis also mean Schudrich can focus on what he called “global issues,” such as rebuilding mikvahs, developing Jewish education and establishing a national kashrut standard instead of worrying “if we have someone to read the Torah on Shabbas.”
In Warsaw at the Nozyk Synagogue, Schudrich will be aided by Pawlak, who hails from the city of Szcezcin.
Pawlak is the first Pole to graduate rabbinical school and return to Poland since the toppling of the totalitarian regime. He will also be the first Polish principal of the Lauder Morasha Jewish School, replacing its longtime American co-founder, Helise Lieberman.
“I first met Pawlak when he was a 15-year-old with long hair and a beer in his hand at the Lauder camp,” Schudrich said, referring to a Jewish summer camp in Poland supported by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
“Then process of maturing that he has gone through reflects the maturation of the Polish Jewish community. He went from young, unaware about Yiddishkeit, to curious, to experimenting, to saying yes, I am ready to take on a very deep commitment.”
Pawlak, 29, father of a baby boy and a recent graduate of Yeshiva University in New York, does not dispute Schudrich’s description. “When I met Rabbi Schudrich 14 years ago, I had no idea what being Jewish meant. I think that is why I can help people coming to synagogue for the first time because I know exactly what they are feeling, I felt it too.”
Another rabbi with Polish roots is Rapaport, who grew up in Sweden. His mother left Poland in 1968 when 20,000 Jews were forced to flee due to a government-sponsored campaign. He speaks Polish fluently and will be the first full-time rabbi in Wroclaw in many decades.
“I was very ambivalent about going to Poland at first but last winter I went to the Lauder camp and I was very impressed and touched with the hunger for Judaism,” said Rapaport, who most recently worked in Oslo. “I felt it’s like a spiritual tikkun,” or repair, “that I come here and make the phoenix rise from the ashes.”
Like Schudrich, Rapaport is convinced there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews in the city who haven’t as yet identified their faith.
Rappaport, who says he is “pushing 30″ and comes to Poland with his wife and two children, said he never realized how Polish he was.
“I never really felt Swedish but now, being here, seeing how warm people are, I see that this is where it comes from.”
When it comes to globetrotting, however, none in this group can match Pash, the father of five boys who has served congregations in Portugal, Brazil, Ukraine and India. He speaks languages well from all of his travels and is convinced he will be conversant in Polish within a year.
“Where everything is organized it seems to me a waste of time to stay there. So what I am doing is looking for places where they need me more, especially where there are Jewish people who hide themselves,” like the forced converts in Portugal. “I think in Krakow this is also the case.”
Pash’s sense of humor, warmth and relaxed outlook are sure to be a hit with the young people of Krakow, who have not always mixed well with the official community of a few hundred elderly Jews.
“You can’t call up the people with a Jewish-sounding name and say, ‘Hey, are you a Jew?’ Come to shul. First, you have to change how Judaism is understood, that they see it as an honor to be a Jew,” Pash said. “This worked very well in Portugal.”
Back in Warsaw, Schuman has big plans.
He wants to transform the semi-suburban house of worship into a major cultural and religious center offering Torah study, Talmud classes, an adult bar mitzvah program, rigorous conversion procedures, courses in modern Hebrew and poetry reading/coffee house sessions.
“We are currently doing a Jews in cinema series with pictures like ‘Frisco Kid,’ ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Duck Soup,’ ” said Schuman, who according to his blog, http://joo.com.pl/rabbis_blog/ploneissue_view, is a “frustrated vaudevillian, actor-writer and Yiddisher tumbler.”
“Of course my real mission is to build a movement,” Schuman told JTA.
Schuman served for years in Altoona, Pa. “I was anxious for a new experience and as a culture vulture, I am much more at home in Warsaw which seems just like New York, than in western Pennsylvania.”
Schuman, 58 and single, has the kind of zeal, charisma and New York chutzpah that some observers have intimated might create some headaches for Schudrich in an environment with few Jews, questions about pluralism and a history of infighting.
But both men have expressed a desire to work together.
As for having some competition, Schudrich said, “It’s delightful to have a normal Jewish problem, not a post-Holocaust problem or a post-Communist problem. After so many years of dealing with that, just having the normal tensions and the fighting and the cooperation that comes with it, it’s like, Wow, we’re almost normal.”