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Hail to the Chief

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, has the air of someone who enjoys being a little unorthodox. I suppose you have to be to leave behind a comfortable Upper West Side upbringing, spend six years leading a community in Japan, and after that set up shop in post-Communist Poland. He’s an Orthodox rabbi who was originally ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a vegetarian in a meat-and-potatoes country, and seemed to relish telling me about seeing the Grateful Dead perform at Nassau Coliseum in 1973. 

For the better part of 20 years, Schudrich has been working to revive Jewish life in Poland. And judging from his schedule over the past 10 days, which he struggled to recall over Shabbat dinner at the Nozyk Synagogue — the only remaining one in Warsaw — he’s got his plate full. Among his activities in recent days were numerous visits to supervise the kashrut of food production facilities around the country, inspecting several of the country’s 1,200 Jewish cemeteries, putting out various communal fires, lecturing to Polish students, and greeting VIce President Joe Biden during his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial. 

Interacting with heads of state is par for the course for Schudrich, who seems to enjoy an influence unwarranted by the comparatively small community over which he presides. Several times in our discussion he mentioned Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, making me wonder whether he has the head of state on speed dial. And recently he was at the center of a British political row when comments he made about a controversial Polish politician were used to beat up on the leader of the Tories, David Cameron. Schudrich told me his comments were grossly misinterpreted. 

Other than Britain’s top rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, I can scarcely think of another chief rabbi who is quoted as frequently and enjoys that kind of access. Come to think of it, other than Schudrich and Sacks, I can barely even name another chief rabbi. 

Over dinner, Schudrich sketched out the two main story lines of Jewish life in Poland today. One is the slow but steady trickle of Poles with Jewish roots seeking greater understanding of their faith. The other is the growing interest among non-Jewish Poles in things Jewish. These two distinct but related phenomena are the crux of the Polish Jewish story as it is now unfolding. 

I then asked Schudrich, as I have virtually every important community figure I’ve encountered in Europe, about the major challenges facing his community. The answer: Finding people for his followers to marry. In one form or another, that’s the same response I’ve heard everywhere. 

What does it mean that communities in Central and Eastern Europe, despite their incredible histories, see their main challenges in terms nearly identical to what Jewish leaders everywhere are facing: continuity, affiliation, intermarriage and the like? (Americans might throw in fundraising too.) Schudrich suggested the answer that has been poking around the back of my head for three weeks now: Europe has grown up.  

After the Holocaust, Jewish communities in Europe faced the daunting task of reassembling the shards of communal life. In the East, after the fall of Communism, they had to gather up all these lost souls denied access to their religious heritage. Both these processes are still ongoing and will be for some time. But something is shifting. 

After the plates were cleared and the room emptied out, we continued talking for close to an hour. Schudrich was plainly exhausted, but seemed unhurried. I had planned to go meet with a group of younger Jews, and Schudrich accompanied me up two flights of a rickety wooden staircase to a low-ceilinged room on the top floor where the group was having dinner. We took seats and Schudrich continued to shmooze, offering a short commentary on the weekly Torah portion in Polish (he still needs help with a word here and there, but otherwise he was in firm command). He bantered easily with the dozen or so people gathered around a crowded table. 

Many of them, he told me, are the grandchildren of Ghetto fighters. Many of their parents were active in Solidarity and the struggle against Communism. They are, in short, kids with a heroic lineage whose greatest struggle may be a personal one: to reclaim their Jewish identities. 

"They are looking for their revolution," Schudrich said.