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High Holidays Feature: Female Rabbi-led Services Give Jews in Warsaw Another Choice

September 21, 2000
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For what is believed to be the first time, a female rabbi will conduct High Holiday services this year in Warsaw.

U.S. Conservative Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper is being brought to Warsaw for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by Beit Warszawa, a new liberal Jewish group recently established in the Polish capital by expatriate and Polish Jews.

“While Beit Warszawa did not specifically search for a female rabbi for the High Holidays, the fact that Rabbi Culpeper was chosen is exemplary of the liberal and egalitarian attitude with which the members of Beit Warszawa approach Judaism,” said Krzysztof Kulig, one of the group’s founders and an executive search consultant in Warsaw.

The Beit Warszawa services will mean that for the first High Holidays in decades, Jews in Warsaw will have a choice of services to attend.

Culpeper, who has served with a congregation in Birmingham, Ala., will lead services to be conducted in Polish, English and Hebrew, in a Warsaw theater rented for the occasion.

Beit Warszawa members – many of whom are international businesspeople or other professionals – pooled frequent flier miles to pay for Culpeper’s plane ticket. One member is donating a Torah scroll that has been in the possession of his family for several generations.

Group organizers issued an email appeal for 50 kipot and tallitot.

Orthodox services, followed on Rosh Hashanah by a communal dinner from the community’s kosher kitchen, will take place, as usual, in the city’s Nozyk Synagogue, the only synagogue in Warsaw to have survived the Holocaust.

These services will be led by Rabbi Michael Schudrich, an American who served for a decade as Warsaw director of the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. This summer, he was hired as the official rabbi of the Warsaw Jewish community.

The Lauder Foundation has played a leading role in sponsoring Jewish education and youth activities in Poland and in other Central European countries since the fall of communism.

Schudrich’s activities with the Lauder Foundation were essential in attracting hundreds of Polish Jews to reclaim their Jewish identity and learn about Judaism and Jewish traditions, history and culture.

Organizers of Beit Warszawa said they did not want to compete with the Nozyk synagogue services, but wanted to offer an alternative for American and other Jews who are not comfortable with Orthodox practice.

“One of the greatest strengths of Judaism is the pluralistic way in which Judaism is practiced throughout the world,” said Kulig.

The Nozyk Synagogue is an outstanding synagogue, but many Jews prefer to practice their religion according to the more liberal traditions offered by the other denominations of Judaism,” he said.

“This is true for some Polish Jews who are exploring their Jewish heritage for the very first time and find the strict Orthodox practices, such as the separation of men and women in the synagogue, difficult to accept,” he said.

Some Polish members of Beit Warszawa said they felt intimidated by the Nozyk Synagogue.

“I am not ready for it,” said a Polish-American man in his 40s who traveled from southern Poland, where he runs a business, to attend a Friday night gathering of the group this month.

He said his family emigrated to the United States when he was a child, and his memories of Jewish life in Warsaw were negative.

“We were very poor,” he said. “We got food from the Jewish community soup kitchen.”

Beit Warszawa is modeled on Beit Praha, a similar organization created several years ago by local Jews and expatriates in Prague.

At Beit Warszawa – as at Beit Praha – women and men sit together and participate equally in all services, which will include extensive explanations of prayers and traditions.

Beit Warszawa was founded this summer and began holding informal Sabbath eve meetings in private homes once a month. The evenings are as much social occasions as they are religious experiences.

“Over the years, there has always been a group of us saying that the synagogue here is great, but that it is not the type of Judaism we grew up with. We didn’t feel that it was ours,” said Jonathan Mills, an American business entrepreneur who has lived in Warsaw for nine years.

“Finally, after years of talking, we got together and organized a Friday night dinner, and 35 people showed up,” he said.

He said about one-third of the group are Americans and two-thirds are Polish. Contacts were made by word of mouth and by setting up an email network.

Some members of the established Warsaw Jewish community warmly welcomed the liberal alternative. They also welcomed the chance to include more “emerging” Jews within Warsaw’s Jewish world.

“It’s exciting, and a very good development,” said one woman active in communal life.

But others, including Schudrich, expressed initial concern that the new group could divide or prove a threat to the established religious community, which is still fragile despite the great strides made during the past decade.

“We need to see how we can work together,” said Schudrich, who also, for the first time, will offer services in English as well as Hebrew this year.

Despite his reservations, Schudrich and the leaders of Beit Warszawa said they hope to co-sponsor an Oneg Shabbat or other joint event between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

For their part, Beit Warszawa leaders see the establishment of their group as a further demonstration of the new dynamism in Polish Jewish life.

Several hundred Jews are members of the established religious community or of secular Jewish organizations in Warsaw. But Schudrich and others estimate that there may be as many as 3,000 or 4,000 Jews in the city.

“The development of Beit Warszawa and its style of practice is the logical next step in the revitalization of the Jewish community in Poland over recent years,” said American businessman Clifford Aron, another of Beit Warszawa’s founders, who has lived in Warsaw for four years.

“As an American Jew of Polish descent, I have met so many Poles who wish to rekindle their Jewish heritage. This group provides another important outlet for anyone wishing to have a Jewish experience in Warsaw,” Aron said.

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