Poles apart

Jewish leaders in Poland go head-to-to for power, prestige, and money.

Jews in Poland 370 (photo credit: Cnaan Liphshiz)
Jews in Poland 370
(photo credit: Cnaan Liphshiz)
The Jews of Poland are involved in a bitter conflict. This time, however, the foe is not external; this time, it is an internecine battle for power and prestige – and the control of vast funds. On one side of the divide sits the Orthodox community, Twarda, named for the street in Warsaw on which its offices and the Nozyk synagogue are located. The other combatant is Beit Polska, the Progressive Jewish community of Poland.
In 1995, Severyn Ashkenazy, 60 at the time, a Polish-American Jew, decided to establish a progressive community in Poland; and together with his son and a few friends, he founded Beit Warszawa – the Progressive Jewish community of Warsaw.
Subsequently, in 2008, Ashkenazy and leaders of this community established Beit Polska, and asked the Polish Interior Ministry to recognize the new organization as the umbrella organization for all the Progressive Jewish communities in Poland. Their claim was based on a 1989 law, which stipulates that every religious group has the right to become an official and separate community, if it comprises at least 100 members. The ministry granted the request and named Beit Polska a separate religious movement and the official umbrella organization for all the Progressive Jewish communities in Poland.
“We explained to the Interior Ministry the differences between the Orthodox approach to Judaism and the Progressive one. We convinced them that these differences establish us as a different religion.
For example, the Progressive community considers women and men equal in all matters – they pray and sit together, and women may be rabbis or cantors. We consider people to be Jews if either their fathers or mothers are Jews [as opposed to the Orthodox view that considers a person to be Jewish only if they are born to a Jewish mother]” Grzegorz Galacki, the lawyer who represents Beit Polska, tells The Jerusalem Report.
Shortly after Beit Polska w as established and recognized by the Interior Ministry as a separate religious movement, the Union of Jewish Religious Communities – until then, the only official Jewish community recognized by the Polish government, appealed to have the decision overturned. Their main argument was that the ministry’s recognition of Beit Polska as an official community contradicted a 1997 Polish law that gives the Union of Jewish Religious Communities the monopoly as the umbrella organization for all the Jewish communities and organizations in Poland.
Twarda’s leaders claimed that the Union of Jewish Religious Communities also represented the Progressive stream of Judaism and demanded to be a part of the registration process of Beit Polska as a community.
Ashkenazy, however, says the real reason for the ongoing conflict is money, arguing that Twarda’s leaders are concerned they will have to share government subsidies with the Progressive community. “If we are recognized as a separate community [gmina], we qualify for funding from the government and Jewish organizations. When you are a gmina, you can nominate your clergy and can establish new branches without the need to establish a new religious entity every time,” he tells The Report.
Ashkenazy also says that the Orthodox community’s leaders take advantage of a 1997 law that states that abandoned Jewish property should be transferred to the Jewish community. He charges that the Orthodox community has been selling off these assets for many years, and wonders where the money has gone. “There is no transparency. Synagogues, mikves and other Jewish properties have been sold by the leaders of the Orthodox community over the years,” he says. “What is being done with the money from the sale of this property?” he asks. “No one really knows.”
The Interior Ministry rejected Twarda’s petition against Beit Polska. “The ministry stated that we were registered properly and they found no arguments to reverse the decision. Moreover, they stated that Twarda cannot be a party to the administrative proceeding of the registration of Beit Polska,” explains Galacki.
Determined to cancel Beit Polska’s registration, Twarda’s leaders decided to appeal to the Administrative Court of Warsaw. In October, the court accepted Twarda’s argument that it had the right to participate in the registration proceeding of Beit Polska. The judge also recommended that the Interior Ministry reconsider whether there were sufficient differences between the two communities to justify the registration of Beit Polska as a different entity. It was now Beit Polska’s turn to appeal the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court, and the next chapter in this soap opera will take place in several months.
Along the way, there have been a few attempts to reach a compromise and settle the dispute. “Our rabbis have good contacts with Poland’s Orthodox Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, and were trying to reach some compromise, but without success,” Galacki says. “I think that there is no chance of ever reaching a compromise because Twarda wants to keep its monopoly on Jewish life in Poland and sees it as its mission to cancel our registration as a separate religious entity regardless of the cost.”
In a move that seemed designed to prove that the Orthodox community was ready to accept Progressive Jews to its ranks, Twarda’s leaders decided to form a new progressive congregation called Ec Chaim, and hired a young rabbi, Stas Wojciechowicz, to head it. The Twarda leaders contend that this move is an excellent example of how Progressive and Orthodox Jews can live together under one umbrella despite their differences, expressing hope that other Jewish communities in Europe will learn from it.
According to the Ec Chaim website: “We are a group of reformed Jews closely working with the Jewish community in Warsaw. We are trying to create an open and friendly synagogue for every Jew, by connecting tradition with modernity.”
Beit Polska’s leaders dismiss this effort and argue that the entire move is merely a facade. “Twarda hired Rabbi Wojciechowicz just to show the world that they have also established a Progressive community,” Ashkenazy asserts. “Rabbi Wojciechowicz has almost no rights.
He is under the constant supervision of Rabbi Schudrich and is not independent.
They say that he can perform religious conversions and weddings, but I don’t see much happening. If he really is free, if they allow the members of Ec Chaim to use the mikve, then that’s fine, but for now it doesn’t look like it.”
Ashkenazy is extremely critical of Chief Rabbi Schudrich and President of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities Piotr Kadlcik, accusing them of trying to undermine any attempt to reach a compromise, and charging that they are not striving to create a better and stronger Jewish community in Poland. “Three years ago, and I have full documentation to prove it, I invited all of these people, all of Twarda’s leaders, to meet, but Kadlcik ordered that none of his people attend,” Ashkenazy says. “He has no interest in building Jewish life in Poland. He and Schudrich are only looking out for their own interests.”
Rabbi Haim Beliak, Beit Polska’s senior religious authority tells The Report, “Twarda’s leaders are not interested in religious pluralism. What they want is religious control. Pluralism means that a Jewish community has different points of view. What we have in Poland is a situation in which Twarda has used the money it received to teach a consistent hatred for other parts of the Jewish world. The reason that they are objecting to our registration is because they believe they were given religious monopoly. In most parts of the world, except Poland, Israel and some East European countries, Jewish communities live with pluralism.
“We have five groups now, in Lublin, Gdansk, Bialystok, Lodz and Poznan. All five of them have had people from Twarda coming to them and saying, ‘You have no right to exist in Poland and no right to teach Judaism.’ They control all the reparations money they receive from the Polish government, and they are afraid that we will say that we would like some of the money and that we will find out that they have already spent all of that money.
All our offers to cooperate are met with insults. We simply want recognition.”
Beliak notes that the World Union for Progressive Judaism has made a number of attempts to settle the dispute outside the courtroom, but to no avail. “A few leaders of the World Union for Progressive Judaism came to speak with Rabbi Schudrich and Kadlcik, but they were treated in a very insulting way,” he says.
“We also approached the Joint Distribution Committee and asked them to stop giving money to Twarda. JDC has a rule that says that if you receive money from them, you have to treat everybody fairly, there can be no discrimination. Twarda has discriminated against us.”
Despite repeated attempts, the leaders of the Orthodox community (among them Schudrich, Kadlcik and Wojciechowicz) refused all requests to be interviewed for this article.
Wojciechowicz, however, did note to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in November, “ The allegations derive from the complete lack of understanding of local Jewish reality with all its complexity.”