Since returning to Poland last June to serve as chief rabbi of Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Shudrich has been busy trying to resolve the country’s Jewish past, and also secure its future.
One moment he’s ensuring that the community has kosher food. The next, he’s trying to save abandoned Jewish cemeteries and mass grave sites left in ruins after World War II.
Perhaps most importantly, the short, bearded 45-year-old Bronx-born and Patchogue, L.I.-raised rabbi is trying to help Poles with Jewish roots return to Judaism.
He calls them “modern-day Marranos,” referring to Spanish Jews who were forced to give up their religion during the Spanish Inquisition.
There are an undetermined number of young Poles who are now discovering one of their parents was Jewish but gave it up when the Nazis came.
Before World War II, Warsaw was home to some 380,000 Jews, more than any other city in Europe. Most died in the Holocaust or left Poland shortly after the war.
Their descendants are now seeking to explore that lost heritage, says Rabbi Shudrich. “I’ve met hundreds and hundreds, so the number has to be significantly greater.”
He’s doing all this while spending two weeks a month in Warsaw and two in Manhattan, where his wife and daughter live.
He’s also dealing with unexpected political issues, both within the Jewish community, and also between the Jews and Poles.
Two such issues emerged just in the last few weeks. On the eve of the Jewish New Year Rabbi Shudrich’s traditional Orthodox prayer service at the Nozyk Synagogue — the only synagogue in Warsaw to have survived the Holocaust — is being challenged by an egalitarian service being offered by a breakaway liberal group of expatriate and Polish Jews.
It threatens to divide an already struggling community, or merely validate the old joke about two Jews and three shuls.
“It’s sad that in a re-emerging Jewish community after 60 years, that Jews from the outside, in this case American Jews living in Warsaw, have not been able to find a way to work within the Jewish communal structure.”
But the founders of Beit Warszawa say they don’t want to compete but offer an alternative for Jews 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 Krzysztof Kulig, an executive search consultant in Warsaw.
The liberal group hired Conservative Rabbi Cynthia Culpeper, recently of Birmingham, Ala., to lead High Holy Days egalitarian services in Polish, English and Hebrew at a rented city theater. It’s believed to be the first time a female rabbi would conduct the New Year services in Poland. Kulig said some Polish Jews who are exploring their Jewish heritage for the very first time, find the strict Orthodox practices, such as the separation of men and women in the synagogue, difficult to accept.
Some Warsaw Jews welcome the liberal alternative as “the logical next step in the revitalization of the Jewish community in Poland.”
But Rabbi Shudrich is concerned about fragmentation. He says he tried to keep the community together but was rebuffed.
“As a Modern Orthodox rabbi I feel obligated to any Jew out there. Whether I agree with somebody or not, I want to celebrate being Jewish with them.”
Some estimate there are several hundred Jews who are members of the established religious community or of secular Jewish organizations in Warsaw. Rabbi Shudrich and others estimate that there may be as many as 3,000 to 5,000 Jews in the city.
The past is also demanding Rabbi Shudrich’s time. He is working with Jewish and Polish officials on an emergency basis to try and save an abandoned Jewish cemetery in nearby Karczew, where soil erosion is exposing human bones — a desecration of Jewish law.
“Bones come to the surface after every storm,” Rabbi Shudrich explains. “It is very disturbing.”
The Karczew cemetery is in a small town 15 miles southeast of Warsaw, once a popular Jewish summer resort. The graveyard is one of more than 1,000 abandoned and vandalized Jewish cemeteries in around Poland.
“If we are going to be a living Jewish community, we cannot forget our obligation to those who came before,” Rabbi Shudrich said. He has recently met with Polish, Jewish and American officials to discuss stabilizing the soil and enclosing the cemetery with a fence.
The rabbi has excellent contacts because he’s already plugged into the community: He served for almost nine years as Warsaw director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, dedicated to rebuilding Polish Jewish life.
In September 1992, he moved to Poland with his wife Roberta and daughter Arianna, now 13. He returned to New York to work at the foundation headquarters in 1998.
But last year, an opportunity to return to Poland arose after his replacement, Rabbi Baruch Rabinovich, suddenly quit after six months. Rabbi Shudrich decided to leave the foundation and accept an offer from Warsaw’s Jewish leadership.
Rabbi Shudrich recently earned an Orthodox ordination through Yeshiva University. The rabbi, who now considers himself Orthodox, was previously ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1980.
Shuttle rabbinics is difficult, he admits, particularly on his family.
“This is far from an ideal situation, but the opportunity to be involved with a reemerging Jewish community that was left for dead is greater than the physical and other problems. I feel I can make a difference.”
This is the first time since before the war that the community is trying to fund the position through donations from individuals.
His biggest priority next year is “to make the synagogue and the Jewish community a place where anyone with Jewish roots can feel at home.
“Imagine if in 1552 we would have had the chance to go into Spain and open a Jewish youth club. How many grandchildren of Marranos would have returned to Yiddishkeit?
“In Poland we have that chance. The question that haunts me is will we take advantage of this historic possibility?”