S.F. native will lead services in Warsaw

WARSAW, Poland — For what is believed to be the first time, a female rabbi will conduct High Holy Day services this year in Warsaw.

U.S. Conservative Rabbi Cyndie Culpeper, a San Francisco native, 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.

According to Krzysztof Kulig, one of the group's founders and an executive search consultant, Beit Warszawa did not specifically search for a female rabbi. "The fact that Rabbi Culpeper was chosen is exemplary of the liberal and egalitarian attitude with which the members of Beit Warszawa approach Judaism," she said.

The Beit Warszawa services will mean that for the first High Holy Days 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 theater rented for the occasion.

The rabbi, a Jew-by-choice, studied with Congregation B'nai Emunah Rabbi Ted Alexander before converting and attending New York's Jewish Theological Seminary. In 1996, she went public in her personal battle against AIDS. A former nurse, she was exposed to AIDS-infected blood while working at San Francisco General Hospital.

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 e-mail appeal for 50 kippot 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.

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.

"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," Kulig 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 added.

At Beit Warszawa, there is gender-mixed seating, and everyone participates 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.

Some members of the established Warsaw Jewish community warmly welcomed the liberal alternative. They also welcomed the chance to include more "emerging" Jews of the city.

"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.

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.