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Facing adversity, Krakow’s Jews celebrate Shabbat

When one synagogue closed its doors to us, we improvised another -- temporary -- place to worship, and it was beautiful
Chief Rabbi Schudrich and Rabbi Gurary
Chief Rabbi Schudrich and Rabbi Gurary

We, the Jewish community of Krakow, were flummoxed as to how to spend Shabbat this week. Usually it’s not a very perplexing issue; after all, you pray in Shul, eat your meals and rest! Yet, this was the first Shabbat that we found ourselves locked out of our Shul! As a result of a hostile lockdown several days earlier, when the president of the Gmina (official Jewish community which controls all of the Synagogues and public Jewish buildings from before the war), Mr. Jakubowicz, decided he would no longer allow us to enter the Izaak Synagogue and he posted armed, masked guards at the doors and bolted the gate—we were without a place of prayer.

Since the day the gates were locked, we have taken it upon ourselves to pray in front of the Synagogue, morning, afternoon and evening. We keep a vigil showing the Gmina that we care too deeply for our Shul–the place we have been praying in daily for ten years, where we learn Torah in our Kollel, and celebrate festive holiday meals together. In fact, over the last years, since we broke away from the official Jewish community (which prayed in the Rem”a Shul), our community has gotten stronger, crystallised and been enhanced with young families and children—we are in a state of growth!

Credit: Katarzyna Bednarczyk

Apparently, this was too much for the Gmina to handle so they first shut the electricity, then water and finally closed down the whole building citing an ‘emergency renovation required’. The building is standing since 1638 (!), outlasting the Nazis and the communists, a surprise emergency renovation seems to me an unlikely reason to shut Jews out of their house of worship. Yet, that is exactly what happened.

Katarzyna Bednarczyk

As Shabbat approached, we were unsure of the plan. We couldn’t pray outside the entire Shabbat, could we? We did not have chairs, tables, a place for the Torah, our Talis’s (prayer shawls) and Tefilin (phylacteries which were not used on Shabbat but we still did not have them in our possession), how could we make that space a functioning Shul? What’s more is that outside of the gates of the Synagogue is considered public domain and we do not have an Eiruv in Krakow which would allow us to carry our siddurim six feet!

[With regard to the Taleysim, Rabbi Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland was determined to correct that wrong. It was bad enough for Jews to be locked out of the Synagogue but also to have their religious articles stolen from them? So, he jumped the fence (!) in an attempt to force the guards to open the doors and at least retrieve our items.]

Credit: Gioele Staro

In the end Rabbi Schudrich stayed for Shabbat but we still didn’t know where to spend it! We decided to begin and end at the gates of the shul—we will not stop standing outside those locked gates and praying in front of those masked armed guards! With a crowd of around 60 Jews and another 50 onlookers and sympathizers we prayed at the gate of the shul, sang and danced! Not an ideal situation, but we made it work.

JCC courtyard in preparation for Shabbat services

On Shabbat morning, though, we had a beautiful experience—the JCC opened up its courtyard for us and we prayed as one Jewish community. For a moment we forgot about our predicament and just enjoyed the summer breeze as we sang together and enjoyed the service with Rabbi Eliezer leading part of it and I the other, as well as many tourists who have come to enjoy the open and friendly environment we create here in Krakow. I shared a message with the community about the ‘not so coincidental’ Torah portion of the story of Korach and the rebels. I said that after the debacle with the sin of the spies the parsha speaks about one message—who is fit to lead the Jewish people? The answer is the one who possesses both the integrity of a leader representing God and one who consistently acts in the interests of the Jewish community. It was my fervent wish that we see such leaders in our lives.

Shabbat was long yet restful with Mincha at the JCC once again, but for Maariv and the Havdalah service we went back to the synagogue. We prayed together, sang together and let the light of the Havdalah candle show us the way through our current crisis. I hope this was the last Shabbat we are locked out of our Shul, I hope the president of the community changes his mind and removes the armed guards and I hope this community can return to its state of revival and this sad, tragic story will become a fleeting memory.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Baumol is serving the Jewish community of Krakow as it undergoes a revitalization as part of a resurgence of Jewish awareness in Poland. He is also the Emissary of Shavei Israel in Krakow, Poland. He graduated Yeshiva University and Bernard Revel Graduate School with an MA in Medieval JH. He is a musmach of RIETS and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. He served as a rabbi in Vancouver British Columbia for five years. Rabbi Baumol is the author of "The Poetry of Prayer" Gefen Publishing, 2010, and author of "Komentarz to Tory" (Polish), a Modern Orthodox Commentary on the Torah. He also co-authored a book on Torah with his daughter, Techelet called 'Torat Bitecha'. As well, he is the Editor of the book of Psalms for The Israel Bible--https://theisraelbible.com/bible/psalms
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