Polish Jewish community revitalizing, says chief rabbi

Imagine being 78 years old.

Now imagine being 78 years old and learning — for the first time — that you’re Jewish.

Hard to believe? Rabbi Michael Schudrich has hundreds of such anecdotes. As the chief rabbi of Poland, he deals almost daily with people — young and old — who come to him wondering: What does being Jewish really mean?

“Poland’s Jews feel that Judaism is something special and important,” he said during a recent visit to the Bay Area. “It’s our challenge and responsibility to find that spark and bring it back to the Jewish people.”

Yes, Poland was a place of murder on an unthinkable scale, the rabbi points out. The Nazis killed 90 percent of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews. Those who survived either stayed in Poland, hiding their Judaism, or fled, mostly to the United States.

But Schudrich also knows of a different Poland, one that is slowly rehabilitating its Jewish community, bringing life where there once was only death.

Since 1989 and the fall of communism, “thousands of Poles have discovered they have Jewish roots,” he said.

And since that time, Schudrich has cultivated those roots. Schudrich, who grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, was in the Bay Area last week to speak about his work in Poland. The Jewish community there has gotten a huge boost thanks to the local Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, which has worked closely with Schudrich to rebuild Poland’s Jewish community.

Schudrich spoke to two dozen Jewish leaders over breakfast Friday, April 27 at the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco. He explained that “nobody has any idea” how many Jews live in Poland today, since many people either don’t know they’re Jewish, or know they’re Jewish but don’t want anything to do with their heritage. The best number he could come up with was between 20,000 and 40,000.

His work focuses on meeting four main needs: educational, cultural, religious and academic.

“I lead an open Orthodox synagogue. That means anybody can come, and we make no demands,” he said. “We teach, we encourage, we create a safe space.”

Schudrich would like more people to see Poland as a place of Jewish life and not only Jewish death. He’s worked with the March of the Living to try and arrange for young Jews to meet with Polish Jews, in addition to seeing the concentration camps.

“The bottom line is, the March hasn’t evolved enough,” he said. “I realize and respect that Auschwitz brings people to Poland, but doesn’t it make sense to expose people to the living Jewish community that’s re-emerging?”

Several people asked him about anti-Semitism in Poland. Schudrich is no stranger to the question. But anti-Semitism in Poland is no worse than anywhere else in Europe, he said. And besides, he added, anti-Semitism should not be, and is not, his main focus.

“The Jewish community is good at identifying anti-Semitism and fighting it, but we are much weaker at identifying friends and allies so together we can fight anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.”

When he speaks to Jews outside of Poland, he encourages them to take an interest in the rebuilding effort. He’s noticed that Polish Jews are encouraged and uplifted by outsiders’ interest in their lives.

“What we have today in the U.S. is a result of what was nurtured in Poland over thousands of years,” he said. “Now American Jews have the opportunity to give back. The only obstacle is our own will to help.”

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.