In the summer of 2013 I had a meeting with Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich in Jerusalem in which he invited me to join him in helping to rebuild Jewish life in Poland. The position would entail me serving the community of Krakow, Poland as its Chief rabbi. My reaction was incredulity, noting that I hadn’t even thought there were Jews left there. He smiled and told me that I will be amazed at what is happening today in Poland, we just have to let the rest of the world know!
Rabbi Schudrich has invested a major part of his personal and professional life in serving and revitalizing Poland’s Jewish community, not an easy task. Yet, he has been doing so since 1992, just a few years after the fall of Communism and the establishment of an independent, democratic Poland once again.
If I had to describe Rabbi Schudrich I would say relentless, never says no, self-sacrificing, a dreamer. His biography in Polish bears the title ‘Nothing is Impossible’, which pretty much sums up his attitude about Jewish life in Poland. He arrived before us all; before there was a JCC, Polin Museum and many other successful organizations which advance a Jewish future. He came as a volunteer at first, then as an employee of Ronald Lauder whose foresight and funding jumpstarted the entire revival project. He then received the title of chief rabbi of Warsaw and finally for the past 15 years, Chief Rabbi of Poland.
From seven in the morning until midnight, every day, Rabbi Schudrich is working to build Jewish life and preserve Jewish memory in Poland. He NEVER stops! Rabbi Schudrich tries to build bridges, bridges between Jews and Poles, Israelis and Poles, Jewish Poles and Jewish Poles, Hasidim who want to focus mainly on commemorating the past and those who think only about building a future, religious and secular, Orthodox and Reform, Chabad, politicians, mashgichim, tourists and just about anyone who is willing to sit around a table and work out the issues. He is guided by the ideals of chesed ve’emet–truth and lovingkindness, always seeking peace, always attempting to work together.
He recalled once his bar Mitzvah speech in which he focused on the Israelites who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice for good reasons—they were impure or far away from the camp. They would not be punished and would simply just wait for the following year to fulfil their obligation. That position was not enough for them as they wanted to do more, they wanted to serve God even though they weren’t necessarily obligated. In the end, God responds by enacting a new holiday called ‘second Passover’ which became one of the 613 commandments in the Bible. How amazing that human initiative and desire to go above and beyond became a partner with the divine in creating a mitzvah in the Torah. Rabbi Schudrich took this message to heart and it guides his vocation; he always looks to go above and beyond in the realm of chesed, community building and leadership.
Every time I’ve heard Rabbi Schudrich speak about Jewish life he begins with the same statement: in 1939 there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland; after the Holocaust that number was decimated to 350,000. He then talks about Jewish Poland during communism and the miracle of the revival of Jewish life in modern days since the fall of communism and the emergence of the independent republic of Poland. I believe the reason Rabbi Schudrich begins the same way is to remind himself at all times that though there is revival and it is certainly something to be proud of, we should never lose sight of the loss, of the tragedy of what Poland was, and of preserving the memory of the millions of victims of the Nazi onslaught. At the same time, we build, we expand, we teach Torah, we aspire, become inspired and attempt to inspire others.
Thirty years ago books appeared with titles such as “The Last Remnant of Jews in Poland” or “A Vanishing world” as a premonition of the finality of Jewish life in Poland. Just a short time later, communities are rebuilding, mainly in Warsaw, Krakow, Wrocław, Łódz, but also Jewish life persists in Katowice, Gdańsk, Szceczin, Poznan, Bielsko Biała and Legnica.
Much of the revitalization has to do with Rabbi Schudrich’s vision and determination. He understood that for the communities to rise up once again spiritual leaders must be appointed to help guide the process. In the major cities like Warsaw and Krakow there have been rabbis for the past 25 years, Rabbi Schudrich’s plan was to place rabbis throughout the country in every Jewish community which could sustain it and from there to re-build Jewish life. It was not easy finding the rabbis and families who would be ready and able to invest in rebuilding Jewish life; it was also painstaking finding the funds required to finance these rabbis and their families to uproot their lives and replant in Poland. Yet, this has been part of Rabbi Schudrich’s mission and one in which he has excelled for all these years.
More than the money, Rabbi Schudrich takes the time to mentor each rabbi, to help them navigate through the sometimes murky waters of renewing Jewish life in a once vibrant Jewish Polish city. Currently he has five rabbis serving Jewish Poland, in Warsaw, Łodz, Kraków, and Wrocław. Over the past 20 years Rabbi Schudrich has searched for suitable rabbis, sought them out, found funds to bring them to Poland, mentored them and guided them through the challenges of a new language, a new culture and a new journey in our lives.
David Basok, currently serving the Jewish community of Wrocław with his wife Danielle, tells of their initial experiences with Rabbi Schudrich and the lengths to which he would go for his rabbis. He writes:
“In general our relationship with Rabbi Schudrich over the years can be encapsulated in three words—understanding, support, and encouragement. First and foremost he gives us the feeling that he relies on us completely in all areas; yet at the same time he always makes time for us when we need advice or support. Our experience has been rewarding but challenging at times. I recall one meeting with Rabbi Schudrich when we presented our issues and struggles in the community. He listened intently and at the end responded by saying that he understands our concerns, he can solve some of them but not all. And he sees on our faces that it has been a tense time for us so he would like to send us on vacation for a week to clear our minds. That’s the kind of mentor he is to us. We returned invigorated and ready to tackle the next challenge.
Rabbi Schudrich is the chief rabbi of Poland and we would certainly understand that at ceremonies he should speak; nevertheless, he sometimes would give up his spot in order to encourage the community to hear us speak.
Rabbi Schudrich invests greatly in our relationship; it is not a simple employer/employee connection. He truly seeks to foster a friendship with us, offering us comfort and sometimes chocolates from Warsaw but always an attentive ear to listen to our issues. Rarely do we have a meeting without some classic ‘Rabbi Schudrich jokes’ which lighten our moods and refresh us.
Finally, as the busiest rabbi we’ve ever known, who is globetrotting and involved in so much all the time, we marvel at his ability to have ongoing conversations. We can start one on Sunday but then an emergency ensues and he is off and running, but then Tuesday evening he will call and continue right from where we left off, and perhaps once again for Shabbat but the following Sunday we continue and get a resolution. Truly remarkable!”
Moshe Bloom was Rabbi Schudrich’s assistant Rabbi in Warsaw for four years. He considers his tenure with Rabbi Schudrich as an amazing learning experience which he will cherish for life. He saw him up close and simply marveled at his wisdom, leadership, patience, devotion and humility. Asked what he learned most from Rabbi Schudrich in the field of Rabbinics and kiruv, his answer is ‘complexity! People are complex, as are situations. Have patience, plant seeds, and don’t expect immediate results. It is a process and ultimately it bears fruit!
Rabbi Schudrich’s devotion to Jewish Poland is legendary. He sees the young Polish Jewish children as an extension of his own family; he sees it has his life mission and therefore he sometimes forgets to eat, sleep, take care of himself, he is simply driven!
For me, Rabbi Schudrich has been a trusting boss, believing in me and supporting me throughout my time in Krakow. When I needed his advice he was there, when I was content with doing it my own way he respected me and had my back. While he has been an inspiration in Poland and around the world for the work he has done here, Rabbi Schudrich is down to earth, humble, and fully aware of the complexities of Polish Jewish life and the challenges it sometimes presents. He has also been a role model in terms of his commitment—for twenty-five years he has worked towards the goal of preserving the memory of Jewish Poland and rebuilding Jewish life there. He continues to work on it and does not seem to be slowing down!