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Around the Jewish World with Arrival of a Reform Rabbi, Progressives See Growth in Poland

November 22, 2006
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With the installation of Poland’s first progressive rabbi since World War II, pluralism is gaining a foothold in the country’s Jewish community. Inquiries have been flowing to Beit Warszawa, the only Reform congregation in Poland, since Burt Schuman arrived last month.

“About two months ago, some Jews in Lublin came out of the closet and said they wanted an alternative and approached us,” said Schuman, referring to the phenomenon in Poland of Jews discovering or embracing their long-dormant Jewish identity. “We met with about 33 people, which is more than the official community there of 11.”

A New York native, Schuman most recently was rabbi of a Reform congregation in Altoona, Pa. Since he arrived in Poland in August, progressive groups have formed in Lublin, Krakow, Gdansk and Jastrzebie Zdroj, a city of 102,000 in southern Poland.

The surge of interest in progressive Judaism shows the difference that the presence of a rabbi can make to those who would like to become involved in Jewish life but aren’t drawn to Orthodoxy.

Requests for information, education and help in starting a Jewish congregation are coming from Jews, those with Jewish roots and even from non-Jews, according to Magdalena Koralevska, 24, a Beit Warszawa member who converted last year and is helping to coordinate the congregation’s outreach.

“The future is in bright colors and it’s all been happening in the last three months,” she said. “My hands are almost too full because of the interest coming in from everywhere.”

Schuman says he gets so many phone calls from potential congregations outside Warsaw that he wants to hire a rabbi next year to travel around the country to bolster the new progressive groups.

Among them is Poland’s first group of Jews by choice — or converts — which is led by a Jewish teacher in Jastrzebie Zdroj.

“This is remarkable because it’s in an area that I would compare with the American Bible Belt, very conservative and lots of listeners of Radio Maryja,” he said, referring to a fringe Catholic broadcaster that has aired anti-Semitic content.

Sometimes it’s the generation gap and not the style of observance that has led those with Jewish roots to look outside the existing communal system, where Orthodoxy is the governing principle.

Across Poland, members of Jewish communities tend to be in their 60s and 70s, while many of the people seeking out progressive Judaism are in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

“I was a member of the Lublin community but things there were completely dead, it was all old people and no activities at all,” said Adam Kopciowski, 32. Through Beit Warszawa, he “realized that one could have a completely different approach to Judaism.”

Beit Warszawa is a cultural organization in Warsaw of about 200 members. Founded in 1999, it’s heavily subsidized by Seweryn Ashkenazi, a Polish-born California real estate developer.

There are about 500 members of the Warsaw Jewish community, and 5,000 to 8,000 people are registered as members of Jewish communities in Poland. But local Jewish leaders say the real number of Jews and those with Jewish roots is 10 to 15 times higher.

There has been an ongoing discussion in Poland, and across Europe, about how to help such people reconnect with their Jewish identity.

For Schuman, it starts with making Judaism appealing in the secular world.

In Warsaw he has initiated “cheesecake coffee houses” for schmoozing, Jewish-themed movie nights, lectures by acclaimed academics like historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, and Yiddish musical performances.

There also is an eight-month conversion course that he called “very serious and very demanding.”

Schuman believes he can particularly connect with those who like Reform Judaism’s more inclusive attitude toward patrilineal Jews.

“Of course I encourage them to convert, but first they have to feel welcome,” he said. “Why is gene pool more important than intention and practice in so many Jewish communities?”

Schuman said relations with Michael Schudrich, a fellow New Yorker who is Poland’s Orthodox chief rabbi, are positive.

“The more ways one can be Jewish, the stronger the Jewish community is,” Schuman said. “We both know we’re in the business of making Jews. If one starts in one place and ends up in another, we’re still making Jews.”

Schudrich, for his part, welcomes Schuman’s presence in Poland.

“Anything that contributes to the development of Judaism in Poland is good. I’m sure there are things we can cooperate on,” he said.

But Schuman said he has run up against opposition in Krakow from the official Jewish community, which he claims forbade him to use the synagogue for a service. Owned by the community, the synagogue hosted a Liberal congregation before World War II.

“The question is, do you want to build living Judaism or keep the synagogue as a museum?” he asked. “I assure you that when we’re strong enough, we’ll come back to the community and address the issue of ownership of that synagogue.”

In the meantime, Schuman plans to hold monthly services in Krakow at a restaurant.

Piotr Kadlcik, chairman of the Union of Religious Jewish Communities in Poland, the country’s main Jewish umbrella group, found Schuman’s claim disheartening and put it down to a misunderstanding.

He added that only a tiny percentage of union members are Orthodox.

“But there is one requirement to be a member, and that is you must be Jewish according to the Law of Return,” he said, referring to an Israeli law that makes citizenship available to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. “At Beit Warszawa, anyone can be a member because it is a cultural, not a religious organization.”

Another sticking point in relations between the union and Beit Warszawa, he said, was whether to recognize as Jewish those who had undergone Reform conversions.

“This is definitely an issue, and in time we’ll have to deal with it,” Kadlcik said.

Anna Mazdal, a convert who is Beit Warszawa’s vice president, agrees, but with an addendum that might not suit Kadlcik.

“Right now Polish law says that the union represents all Jews,” she said.

That law also means that the union and its communities are the only Jewish groups entitled to benefit from restituted Jewish property, a long-term source of tension in Poland.

“As we continue to grow, that law will have to be changed,” Mazdal said. “We don’t want an Orthodox rabbi as our chief.”

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