There’s a Problem in Krakow: It has Nothing to do with a Rental Disagreement

Krakow is undergoing a revival of Jewish life; for this we are very grateful to God and the work of good people in Krakow, and we hope this positive development continues and our community continues to grow. For some the return is a religious one, embracing the traditions of the Rem”a and countless other Jewish leaders and rabbis; for others it is a more cultural or even social return. Whatever way this happened, we have seen the Izaak Synagogue flourishing with Polish Jews filling up the pews on Shabbatot and especially holidays. We began a new Kollel in which 15 members are now studying Torah daily and we plan on expanding even more. We have seen the growth of Jewish life at the JCC as well where there is a new Jewish preschool, a growing Hillel students and hundreds are gathering for events to celebrate Jewish events.

We, Rabbis Gurary and Baumol, the two Orthodox rabbis serving the Krakow Jewish community, are working together towards building a stronger, brighter future for Jews, a legacy which has continued the great tradition of vibrant Yiddishkeit in Krakow for hundreds and hundreds of years.

That’s the good news.

We wish we could stop there and just focus on the positive. But people are being intimidated, growth is being stifled and we are facing major challenges in our pursuit of strengthening Jewish life. Solomon in his wisdom writes in Kohelet that “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak”. For this reason, today we speak.

Unfortunately, there is also an ugly side to Jewish Krakow, a secret everybody knows, but nobody speaks about publicly. It concerns the official Jewish community—the Gmina Zydowska (Jewish Religious Congregation). For hundreds of years Jews in foreign lands have chosen a body to represent them to the various governments. It is easier to work with one organization representing the Jews of the land than many different groups.

For many years the job of the Gmina was to take care of Jewish matters such as the cemetery, the synagogues and other Jewish needs—then came the Holocaust and Communism during which the position of the Gmina was minimized, due to lack of money and lack of Jews. For fifty years the Gmina in Krakow served the interests of the dwindling Jewish community and assured there were hospital services for the ill and a proper Jewish burial.

For most of the last half of the 20th century the Jewish Gmina of Krakow was poor as there was no source of income other than donations. Then came 1989 and the end of communism and shortly after the law of returning all public Jewish real estate to the Jewish community. This meant it was returned to the Official Jewish Gmina. Almost overnight the Gmina became one of the richest Jewish institutions in Poland with real estate worth tens of millions of dollars. With the gentrification of Kazimierz in the last 30 years, and with Jewish tourism soaring, each Synagogue, apartment building and storefront we assume has translated into millions of dollars in possible revenue for the Jewish community.

Unfortunately, almost none of it has been publicly directed towards building Jewish life in Krakow. What happened to all the money? Where is the trail of tens of thousands of Zloty in revenue from the multiple properties yielding rental revenue each month? The answer is nobody knows. Why? Because for the last 70 years one family has been in charge of the Jewish Gmina and nobody has access to the financial records of this community. The president of the Gmina has been in power for over 20 years and his daughter is his vice president. They have a small tightknit board of five members and don’t allow anyone from outside their circle to be involved.

In fact, while during the last five years Jewish life has grown and more and more Jews have joined the community, the actual number of Jews who are members of the official Gmina has dropped! Once maintaining a list of 120 members, a scandalous act took place which reduced the numbers under 100 members! Why limit the membership? To control the voting process of course! If you control the votes you stay in power, maintain hegemony, act with impunity and keep getting richer while the rest of the Jewish community in Krakow struggles and relies on foreign donations to run essential programming.

Two years ago, most of the members started praying in the Izaak Synagogue instead of the Gmina’s official one. People were fed up with machloket; they simply wanted to pray in peace and they found that peace in Izaak. We, two rabbis from very different world views; Chabad and Modern Orthodox have gotten along very well together over the past years and continue to work together.

Yes, we have been maligned, shut out, lied to and verbally threatened by various members of the Jewish Gmina over the course of time, but have persevered because the mission of reviving Jewish life in Krakow far outweighed the personal pain. We probably would continue to maintain silence because it is never good when Jews air dirty laundry in public. We should be able to resolve our difficulties internally; we should be able to overcome malfeasance and root out evil. We should be able to democratically right the wrongs of Krakow’s Jewish Gmina through lobbying, voting and influencing the future generations of members.

The problem is that when you control the votes, the members, and the money, for so many years and when you hire people who are all too willing to hide secrets and participate in these shenanigans, then there is truly no hope for a resolution.

Everyone we meet who has a connection to the Jewish community of Krakow, tour guides, visiting rabbis, leaders of the Jewish world, after hearing of the glowing reports of what is taking place here, asks the same question—“Is the Jakubowicz family still controlling all finances in the community and shutting out Jewish life?”.  A knowing sigh, a telling groan and then the conversation moves on.

It all has to stop. The Union of the Religious Congregations of Poland has the capacity in emergency situations to dissolve any individual Gmina. What better reason could there be to dissolve the Krakow Gmina than squandering of money, financial opacity, possible criminal activities, threatening and bullying of Jewish tourists for decades?

We write this with a heavy heart and with full knowledge that a rocky road lies ahead but we all have a responsibility to our community as well as to the world at large—a great responsibility to sanctify the name of God. One of the greatest sins is to desecrate that name through illicit actions and immoral self-serving business dealings.

The time has come.

Krakow today has the potential of being one of the greatest stories of Jewish revivals and light in the Jewish world other than the miracle of the State of Israel. Unfortunately, it is marred by the unspoken corruption and controversy.

We are better than this! The Jewish world should stand with the Jews of Krakow and force the  Union of Jewish Religious Congregations of Poland to demand that the Gmina of Krakow open all of its books, subject itself to a financial audit, show transparency in their business and legal actions and open the membership up to reflect the hundreds of Krakowian Jews who were prevented from joining, dismissed or never showed any interest because of the futility that would be involved.

Let the process begin now. Let the upcoming new year not only bring us peace, health and happiness but also a renewed spirit for all of Krakow with a functioning Gmina who will care for all of its Jewish members and help to reinvigorate Jewish life for all.

The time has come.

Signed,

Rabbi Avi Baumol

Rabbi Eliezer Gurary

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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