After a childhood spent in Patchogue, New York, Michael Schudrich visited Poland five times in the 1970s. By the time the Jewish day school graduate completed Stony Brook University in 1977, Schudrich felt called by the Eastern European country and its Jewish inhabitants, so when a professional opportunity arose in 1990, he jumped at the chance.
Poland is nearly 4,200 miles from New York, but in some ways accepting employment in “The Land of Fields” was a chance to come closer to home, as between 1983 and 1989 Schudrich worked in Tokyo, Japan, as a rabbi.
Pulpits in Poland and Japan had placed Schudrich thousands of miles from the south shore of Long Island, where his father served as a Conservative rabbi, but comparisons between Warsaw and Tokyo are realistically few, he explained.
The communities were about as similar as “apples and oranges,” he said. “Tokyo is fundamentally expatriates, foreigners or foreign Jews coming to Tokyo to work for several years for multinational companies, or young people just coming to hang out. In Warsaw, it’s people who have lived there for generations but have recently discovered they’re Jewish.”
Schudrich offered insight into Warsaw’s Jewish community, and his own biography, during a trip to Pittsburgh last week.
“Most people don’t realize that of the 3.5 million Jews before the war, 90% were murdered during the war by Germans and accomplices, leaving 10% alive — 350,000,” he said.
For those remaining Polish Jews, a series of choices impacted current communal realities, as after the war Polish Jews debated whether to leave Soviet-occupied communist Poland or remain but suppress any Jewish identity. In a sense it was “stay Jewish, leave communist Poland; stay in communist Poland, stop being Jewish,” said Schudrich. Those who chose the latter then debated whether to tell their children and grandchildren they were ever Jewish.
If one refrained from illuminating the past, “this deep, dark family secret stayed a secret for 50 years, from 1939 to 1989,” when Communism fell. “At that point, the Nazi survivors are confronted with the question: ‘Do I feel safe enough today to tell my children and grandchildren, friends, colleagues, neighbors that I’m really Jewish?’”
Schudrich arrived in Eastern Europe around the time many residents began navigating these complex waters.
“I’d say that the community and I kind of grew up together,” he said.
Schudrich holds ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree from Columbia University. As a professional, he came to Poland first with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in 1990. In 2000, he became rabbi of Warsaw, and in 2004 accepted the position of chief rabbi of Poland.
Schudrich’s visit to Pittsburgh follows last April’s announcement that the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether Peoplehood Platform added Warsaw as an additional partner to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; the Steel City has maintained decades-long ties to the northern Israeli regions of Karmiel and Misgav.
“We’re hoping to add a new dimension, a new layer of Jewish peoplehood to our work,” said Debbie Swartz, Federation’s overseas planning associate.
Welcoming Warsaw “can put a mirror up in front of our faces, in Pittsburgh and Karmiel/Misgav, of our Jewish identity by understanding the journey that they’re going through in Warsaw as an emerging Jewish community since the fall of communism; what that journey is for them; and how does that potentially inspire us; and what they can learn from us about building a Jewish community,” she added.
Swartz was among those who talked to Schudrich and four other visiting Polish Jewish professionals about Pittsburgh’s relationship with Karmiel and Misgav and the realities of local Jewish life.
Daylong meetings, including those at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, provided insight into the programs that already exist between Pittsburgh’s Federation and Karmiel/Misgav, and the ones that Poland or Warsaw can join immediately or in the future.
“We’re thinking about all kinds of possibilities, different ways to integrate them into our programs, different programs, so it is both exciting and it is both challenging because we’ve been in this relationship with Karmiel/Misgav for 25 years,” said Swartz. “It’s like when any new family member comes in. You all have to learn how to work with each other, so that’s what we’re trying to do, and yes we hope to eventually get to the point where it’s working really well but we literally just started. And we’re taking it slow, we’re taking it with baby steps.”
Approximately 10,000 Jews currently live in Poland, according to the World Jewish Congress.
Schudrich is optimistic about his community, as in Warsaw, the number of active Jews is rising, he explained.
“Official members of the community in Warsaw is now over 700,” he said. “That’s up from five years ago, from 250, and more importantly the median age has dropped from like 65 to 45.”
Population growth is reflected by interest, he explained: “People are now ready to affiliate.”
Building a relationship with Pittsburgh and its sister city offers a number of benefits, but primarily when it comes to Jewish identity, he continued: “When a person in Poland discovers they have Jewish roots, first it’s a very lonely experience there by themselves. It’s their personal journey, their personal discovery. And then they decide they want to do something about it, and they get involved in their local community, but it’s just something very local,” he said. Eventually there is a “realization that there is a whole world out there with the Jewish community. And when people in Warsaw, coming back to their Jewish roots, wanting now to become part of the Jewish world know that Pittsburgh and Karmiel/Misgav want to be in contact with us, whatever that means, that they care about us, it’s incredibly important, it’s incredibly empowering.”
Added Schudrich, “We’re not alone.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.