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Around the Jewish World Conservative Inroads in Polish City Spark Concerns of Orthodox Leaders

October 7, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The recent Bat Mitzvah ceremony for two girls here marked a watershed for the second largest Jewish community in Poland.

But the Conservative ceremony came amid controversy surrounding the non-Orthodox conversion of a group of Wroclaw Jews just before Yom Kippur.

The controversy was part of an increasingly open conflict between community members embracing non-Orthodox Judaism and the Orthodox mainstream establishment.

"It’s war," said one Jewish source in Warsaw who did not want to be identified.

Held during Sukkot in Wroclaw’s historic White Stork Synagogue, the Bat Mitzvah ceremony was believed to be the first Conservative Bat Mitzvah ever celebrated in Poland.

The girls, Delfina Krieger and Iga Siedlecka, both 15, are daughters of leading members of the Wroclaw congregation.

Their beaming mothers blessed them and proudly placed tallitot around the girls’ shoulders before they recited the blessing over the Torah.

Neither girl was halachically Jewish by birth. Both underwent Conservative conversions in the United States this summer after studying with Rabbi Ivan Caine, a retired Philadelphia-area rabbi who was sent to Wroclaw a year ago to serve as the community rabbi.

"My father’s father was Jewish, and my mother was Catholic," Delfina told JTA.

"It’s confusing to grow up in two religions, and I didn’t want that for my children. So I wanted to choose. I weighed them up and chose Judaism."

Two weeks before the Bat Mitzvah, the mothers of both girls were among 20 Wroclaw community members who underwent Conservative conversions conducted in Poland by a group of Conservative rabbis from Israel and the United States.

The umbrella group of Poland’s Jewish community, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities is Orthodox.

The conversions — like similar Conservative conversions carried out around the same time in the Czech Republic — outraged the Orthodox rabbinic establishment.

Warsaw’s rabbi, Michael Schudrich, refused permission to use the Warsaw community’s mikvah for the ceremony, so the conversion group used a mikvah in a private hotel in Krakow.

There, Sasa Pecaric, the Orthodox rabbi who heads activities in Krakow sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, attempted to bar access to the mikvah and shouted at the group that their conversions were "phoney" and would not be recognized.

"It was very painful and upsetting," Caine, who later sharply criticized the Orthodox rabbis in his Yom Kippur sermon, told JTA.

The dispute is an example of differing visions of Jewish religious life, differing communal aspirations, and differing ideas of Jewish identity that are crystallizing a dozen years after the fall of communism enabled Jewish life in Poland to re-emerge from the twin traumas of the Holocaust and subsequent Communist oppression.

Each side says the other reneged on promises to cooperate.

Interest in Conservative Judaism in Wroclaw was sparked after an American couple, Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, were married in Wroclaw in 2000 in a ceremony conducted by a Conservative rabbi they brought with them from the United States.

Caine was sent to Wroclaw in September 2001, and during the past year visited the city regularly and spent periods of several weeks there at major holidays.

Wroclaw’s Jewish community numbers about 700 people and has long embraced activists who are not Jewish according to halachah.

Most of the new converts had Jewish roots of some sort.

Since Caine’s arrival in Wroclaw, the community has become more egalitarian, with women playing a prayer role and wearing tallitot.

But a sizable segment opposes the trend, and the congregation has remained divided as to whether it should formally declare itself Conservative.

Poland’s Orthodox religious authorities raised several objections to the Conservative conversions.

For one thing, they point out that the new converts run the risk of being isolated, recognized as Jews only in Wroclaw.

"With all the mistrust in the Jewish world already existing about Poland, they feel non-Orthodox conversions would just be more suspect," said Konstanty Gebert, publisher of the Polish Jewish monthly Midrasz.

"It is my understanding that these converts could have gone the extra mile and got an Orthodox conversion.

It’s more time consuming, but it’s possible, and then they would not be rejected by other Jews," he said. "I’m afraid they will be hurt."

Schudrich, too, criticizes what he sees as an attempt to exacerbate existing tensions and formalize long-standing divisions among Polish Jews.

"Jewish unity is pivotal for the success of any Jewish community, particularly a small one," he said. "Someone who does something to try to split the community is working against the interests of that community."

He and other Orthodox sources said they felt that the Jews in Wroclaw may end up being manipulated in a turf war between the Conservative and Orthodox worlds.

Caine, indeed, hopes Wroclaw will be in the vanguard of a spreading Conservative, or Masorti, movement in Poland and elsewhere.

"We are thrilled to see the beginning of a vital Masorti congregation in Wroclaw, which we think will spread to other cities," Caine told JTA.

"I’m afraid that the Orthodox authorities will try to stop that," he said. "It seems like for them, they would rather have no revival than a liberal revival.

He rejected charges that the conversions he oversaw were "quickie" and not stringently prepared.

"We didn’t just dunk them," he said, referring to the mikvah ceremony. "They studied hard."

But the conflict over Conservative conversions is not the only evidence of institutional splits within a Jewish community that numbers somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 nationwide.

A liberal, havurah-type group in Warsaw, Beit Warszawa, was founded several years ago and appears to be flourishing.

It is not a member of the umbrella Union of Jewish Religious Communities, but it sometimes cooperates with the Orthodox congregation. For example, both groups joined forces for the first time at Simchat Torah ceremonies this year.

More worrying to the local Jewish establishment, however, is the recent formation of breakaway Jewish groups in Gdansk and Poznan that have been set up deliberately as rival organizations outside the union.

The Gdansk group was registered as an "Independent Israelite Community" and, Jewish sources said, it has begun filing restitution claims for prewar Jewish property.

"Legally, if you get enough signatures you can set up a religious organization," Schudrich said. "The government cannot step in and say that these people are not Jewish. They have to register the group."

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