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Around the Jewish World at Beit Warszawa, Polish Jews Experience a Liberal Alternative

March 22, 2005
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In a large white villa in the southern part of Warsaw, in a room with bright paintings exploding all over the walls, a woman plays the piano. A CD of a New York Jewish jazz group plays over her music, and in the kitchen people cook up a big lunch.

The music and the meal follow a morning spent studying Torah. The night before, there had been traditional services and a communal dinner, usually drawing between 40 and 50 people.

This is a typical Shabbat at Beit Warszawa, Warsaw’s progressive Jewish congregation.

Services are sometimes led by visiting rabbis or rabbinical students. Often they’re led by Beit members, who sometimes learn the melodies for the prayers from Internet audio files.

On Friday evenings, Beit’s tradition is to invite all the women to come forward and light the candles that usher in Shabbat.

At the Torah reading, a silver yad, the pointer that marks the reader’s place in the scroll, recently replaced the chopsticks that had been used in the past.

During the individual prayer, people read from photocopied pages. Some stand in silence, their eyes closed.

Everything about the service recalls the Shabbat experience of many Reform congregations in the United States. That’s not surprising — the community was started in 1999 by a group of American expatriates and Poles who were trying to create an alternative to the Orthodox community, which prays in Warsaw at the Nozyk Synagogue.

Until last year, the group met in a number of apartments. Then Seweryn Ashkenazi, a Polish-born American businessman, provided the villa that now is Beit’s home.

“It isn’t easy to just be Jewish in Poland,” said Jan Weinsberg, Beit’s chairman. A smiling man in his 50s, Weinsberg was born in Poland, moved away when he was 16, and moved back only five years ago.

“A lot of people are lost, and they come to Beit Warszawa to make the first step,” he said.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Poles with Jewish roots have been grappling with their identities, and some are afraid to “come out” as Jews in a country still perceived by many to be anti-Semitic.

Today, as Weinsberg pointed out, “This is a safe country. We have no terrorism, and a pro-Israel government.”

Still, some people are still afraid; they remember when being Jewish meant dealing with prejudice, unemployment or worse.

When they do decide to explore their Judaism, some Poles feel comfortable entering the established community, where the rules are strictly observed and there is a firm structure in place. For others, who lived under communism and often were unaware of their Jewish background, the leap to Orthodoxy can be overwhelming. Beit provides a place where they can explore Judaism at their own pace.

“We let people make their own decisions,” Weinsberg said.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland and the religious leader of the Warsaw Jewish community, describes the community as one that is open to everyone exploring their Jewish roots, but notes that being a member of that community — which is 20 percent Orthodox, said Piotr Kadclik, its chairman — requires more.

“To become a member you need to have one Jewish parent or to have been converted halachically,” he said.

Jewish partners of intermarried couples are free to join the community.

Schudrich sees Beit as another positive way in which Jews can connect to their past. “I appreciate and respect the desire of the members of Beit Warszawa to find their way to Judaism,” he says. “We are a small, struggling but re-emerging Jewish community who need to find a way to join all Jews together and not how to separate and disparage each other.”

Weinsberg agrees that a pluralistic community is best, and notes that the two groups do meet for certain holidays during the year. “Our missions are quite different,” he said, “Beit Warszawa is in the ‘business’ of providing a bridge to Judaism for people who have not been exposed to it in the past and a spiritual home for Reform Jews.”

Along with Shabbat services, Beit also celebrates all the Jewish holidays. It offers a Chanukah ball and a Passover seder, held in a restaurant to accommodate everyone who wants to be there. It has lectures on Polish Jewish history and dance and music workshops, and it hosts foreign visitors.

Beit’s executive director, Milena Szyc, said local Jews enjoy showing outsiders that Judaism can flourish in Poland, because visitors often perceive the country as a hostile place for Jews. “It hurts when people just visit the camps, cemeteries and ghettos,” she said.

Beit Warszawa is a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and sees itself as continuing Poland’s history of liberal Judaism.

“I feel that Warsaw is still a Jewish city,” Weinsberg said. “You walk around to certain courtyards and they’re so dilapidated, and then you see a Magen David, and you know you’re in a former Jewish home.”

Beit Warszawa attracts a wide range of members and visitors. Not all are Jewish, or have Jewish roots; some have Jewish friends or are curious about Jewish spiritual and cultural life.

Ludmila Krzewska, whose husband, Rafal, sometimes leads services, said Rafal, who converted to Judaism, became interested in the religion after she began searching for a spiritual alternative to the atheist upbringing her ethnically Jewish parents gave her. “My hobby became his hobby,” she said.

Beit Warszawa would like to find a full-time rabbi. Beit has recently “twinned” itself with Temple Emanuel in Baltimore, and a rabbinical student affiliated with the temple will be officiating Passover at Beit this year.

For many members, Beit Warszawa is an oasis, a place where they can finally express the inner life that had been hidden or subsumed for many years.

As a 4-year-old in 1957, Marek Judaszko was set to move to Israel with his family. His mother, who was not Jewish, and his younger brother waited in Poland; his Jewish father had gone on ahead to set up their apartment. Then his father died suddenly. The family remained in Poland, and his mother changed their last name to her own family name, Mrozowski.

Five months ago, Judaszko found himself at the Orthodox community’s main building. He didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but knew he had to explore his Jewish roots.

When he was directed to Beit Warszawa, he felt he had come home. “In Beit, I speak that I am Jewish in a normal voice, no longer in a whisper,” he said.

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