By Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak
The decision by the European Union’s Court of Human Rights ordering the Hungarian government to recognize its two Reform congregations – Szim Shalom and Bet Orim — will not serve as a caution to the Polish courts as some have claimed; rather, it will serve as a caution to Poland’s Union of Orthodox communities, known as Twarda.
Progressive Judaism in Poland
Poland has ten or eleven Reform or Conservative congregations. Nine congregations are included under the umbrella of Beit Polska. Three and soon a fourth congregation, will be elevated by the Polish Interior Ministry’s initial approval (2009) to the status of full communities (geminas). The historical term for non-Orthodox Judaism (see: Beit Warszawa, Jewish Music and Shabbes) in Poland is “Progressive Judaism”; this term dates back to the founding of the first Progressive Congregation in Warsaw in 1803. The Beit Polska umbrella of congregations was officially recognized by the European Union for Progressive Judaism in its recent annual conference in Dresden over the weekend of April 26. Beit Polska’s flagship congregation Beit Warszawa has served in Poland since 1995. Beit Polska joins the one million members of the world-wide reform/progressive movement affiliated with The World Union for Progressive Judaism. Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland is a primary sponsor of Beit Polska and is led by executive director, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak.
“So few Jews in Poland; Why the attack of the Orthodox establishment?”
In Poland, the “Orthodox” community (nick named Twarda) is working in the Polish courts and through the media to undermine Progressive Judaism. Both the Jewish Progressive community of Beit Polska, and also Chabad are targets of intolerance. In reality both of these very different Jewish movements are native to Polish lands—they were both born in Poland along with most other parts of Judaism’s religious and cultural movements, which include Zionism, Hassidism, Yiddish culture and the Jewish Bund. By labeling Progressive Judaism an American import Twarda is being both ahistorical and contentious.
The “Orthodox” community is led by Piotr Kadlcik and by an American Conservative turned Orthodox rabbi, Michael Schudrich. The Union of Orthodox Religious communities is now before the Polish Supreme Administrative Court seeking to deregister Beit Polska and not allow Chabad to be registered at all. According to Beit Polska president Mr. Piotr Stasiak, “Despite a propensity to see all religion in terms of hierarchies reminiscent of the Catholic Church, the Polish government’s Ministry of the Interior has stood steadfast in supporting Progressive Judaism despite enormous pressure.”
Beit Polska’s executive director, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak noted sadly that “it should come as no surprise that huge segments of court filings by the “Orthodox” are full of accusations that would make an anti-semite proud.”
Where is the money?
Mr. Stasiak added, “The current issue remains the unanswered question: When will the government step in to demand an audit of the books of Twarda [Union of Religious Orthodox Communities] as it did in the case of the Catholic Church?” In Poland, the “Orthodox” community was given a financial monopoly over pre-World War II Jewish property estimated to be worth over $350 million dollars; these assets (primarily real estate) were restituted by the Polish government after the collapse of Communism. The then government negotiated with a small group of five individuals who claimed to represent all the Polish Jewish communities. The five individuals who emerged are not accountable to anyone. There has never been an independent forensic audit of how these restored assets were disposed.
In September 2013, Forbes Poland began a series of articles to explain the financial dealings of the Orthodox community. The authors Wojciez Surmacz (Polish journalist) and Nissan Tsur (Israeli journalist) were immediately branded as anti-Semites because they researched and reported on these matters.
Follow the Money; A Shande
The Forbes article attempts to follow “the money” from 1997, when the Polish government granted a monopoly to a shadowy group of individuals (who still remain in power despite a recent vote of no confidence) and who are selling off pre-World War II Jewish communal properties, including synagogues, schools, hospitals and even cemeteries! The proceeds from sales so far are estimated at $100 million; but the funds have never been audited, in a forensic audit.
Beit Polska board member, Dr. Joanna Auron responded to the Forbes article:
“I hail the courage and the integrity of the Forbes in exposing the touchy issue of misspent Jewish money. “Kaddish for a million bucks” quotes verifiable facts and varied sources; it lists confirmable data, provable numbers, and exact dates. All can be checked and corroborated. Or proven false. Polish antisemites have already picked up the scent of the wounded and are overjoyed to cry: Guilty! All Jews are to blame. Never mind that we may so lack spending money that we squabble over every zloty…That is why Forbes should pay no heed to accusations of antisemitism. These are nonsense. Antisemites have no use for facts. To them, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, each Jew equally guilty regardless of what the Jew does or does not do. So let us never point to the people who help Polish Jewry return to loyalty, justice and its good name as anti-semites.”
Two months later, in a craven and cowardly flight from facts, the German owners of Forbes Poland condescendingly retracted its article and arranged a “separation” for Mr. Surmacz and Mr. Tsur. The Polish press responded in January 2014 by awarding Mr. Surmacz and Mr. Tsur their prestigious Watergate Award. Mr. Buchi of Forbes’ head office in Germany was given the “hyena” award.
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