Chief rabbi hopeful for future of Polish Jewry

Despite ban on ritual slaughter, 600 Jewish families now affiliated with Warsaw community – up from 250 only 3 years ago.

Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
WARSAW – Polish Jewry can expect a “great future,” American-born Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich believes.
Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post in his Warsaw office, located in the last pre-Holocaust synagogue left standing in the city, Schudrich said the dynamics of Diaspora Jewish life today are different than in previous generations, due to the establishment of the State of Israel.
“I think objectively, there is a chance for a great future. However, I think that the entire equation changes because if things really go bad, we [can] go to the airport and go to Israel,” Schudrich stated.
But, he continued, he does not think that such a scenario is likely, despite the challenges facing contemporary European Jewry – including a ban on ritual slaughter in his own country, and efforts in neighboring countries to ban circumcision.
Schudrich, who has been one of the most prominent advocates of ritual slaughter, which has been banned since January, stated he believes that “both shechita and brit mila are sometimes used as really a way of limiting Islamic immigration.”
“The negative impact is the same, but the process of getting there is different,” Schudrich explained. “So we have to be able to understand that in certain countries, anti-shechita, which is anti-hallal, or anti-mila, which is also anti-circumcision for Muslims, can be much more about making the Muslims feel bad than the Jews feeling bad.”
However, he cautioned, there are several reasons behind the efforts to ban these Jewish rites – and anti- Semitism cannot be discounted. This, he said, must be fought.
Responding to a recent resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe calling for European states to reappraise the legality of circumcision, deemed a “violation of the physical integrity of children,” Schudrich spoke in harsh tones.
Opponents of circumcision are concerned “that you are maiming the male for life. Of course that means for 4,000 years of Jewish history, the male was messed up. [These] are absurd arguments.”
Despite the current fiscal crisis, he said, Europeans are enjoying significant prosperity and in their comfort they are “looking for problems that don’t exist.”
Poland enjoys a stronger economy than many other nations, he continued, saying he believes that this, together with a high voter threshold for parties to enter parliament and the reemergence of a multiethnic political ideology, means there is little likelihood of a far- Right party entering the legislature – as has happened in Greece, Hungary and the Ukraine.
“Is there a chance it will happen in Poland?” he asked.
“Everything [has] a chance, [but] I don’t think so.”
“The entire political leadership since the fall of Communism has been from that tradition of Poland that was multicultural. There are two traditions within Poland for centuries: one is xenophobic (Poland for Poles), and the other one is Poland is blessed by being multicultural and multinational, and that enriches the country,” Schudrich stated.
While extreme anti-Semitism has grown, he said, it has been matched by a corresponding growth in what he termed “anti-anti-Semitism.”
“First of all, there is perception and there is reality [of anti-Semitism],” he said.
“The thing to know about the Jewish community here is that a lot of people are discovering” their identities.
Many Jews hid their identities following the Holocaust and through the Communist period, Schudrich said.
There are those who feel uncomfortable expressing their Jewishness even today.
“How is anti-Semitism perceived here? It really depends whom you ask. You get the same thing in America.
There are people who say ‘It’s horrible’ and people who say ‘I’ve never experienced it.’ I would rate it on the low end. How many countries, when the president goes to Israel, do they take the chief rabbi? You could say it’s tokenism, I would say it’s partnership,” the chief rabbi said, referring to this week’s state visit of Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
There are now over 600 Jewish families affiliated with the Warsaw Jewish community, up from 250 only three years ago, he said.
“It’s not immigration, it’s all people that are here, so that is a very hopeful sign. There is no question that it is growing. To what extent it can and become self-sufficient and vibrant again, we will see. I believe in it.”
However, Schudrich continued, his community “doesn’t represent close to most of the Jews,” as Polish Jews still remember when having your name on community rolls made it easier for the Nazis to find and kill them.
“One thing is clear: If we do nothing, nothing will happen. If we try to give these people 21st-century anusim, who not of their own choice have been denied information of their Jewish pasts, if we help them try to come back to the Jewish people, the worst-case scenario is that we fail,” he said.
In the end, the biggest challenges facing Polish Jewry are the same as those facing any small Jewish community, Schudrich said – raising a new generation of leaders and marrying off members.
The Jews of Poland are “very worried about shidduchim [marriage matches],” he said.