Nov 11, 2010
Michael Schudrich was born in New York City in 1955. Educated in Jewish day schools in the New York City area, he graduated from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1997 with a Religious Studies major. Schudrich received semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, and received an MA degree in history from Columbia in 1982.
Schudrich served as rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan from 1983-89. He was concerned with the recognition of the heroism of Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara
who wrote travel visas that facilitated the escape of more than 6,000 Jewish refugees to Japanese territory.
As a student in the 1970’s, Schudrich began his travels to East Europe by leading Jewish groups to those countries and meeting with the remnants of the Jewish communities. In 1990, Schudrich began working for the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and spent 1992-98 residing in Warsaw, Poland. In June 2000, Rabbi Schudrich returned to Poland as the Rabbi of Warsaw and Lodz and in December 2004 was appointed Chief Rabbi of Poland. His views on the Polish Jewish community have changed over his years of service: 2006
A recent profile of Rabbi Schudrich, "The 24/7 Rabbi: Rabbi Michael Schudrich works day and night to rebuild Jewish life in Poland," by Polish author Mladen Petrov tells some of his story:
Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland never sleeps – not surprising given he's a native New Yorker. When people say that Rabbi Michael Schudrich is all over the place they really mean it. Even on Saturday, the Jewish day of rest, the rabbi, both a part-time New Yorker and Varsovian, has his plate full with matters that still need doing.
It’s Saturday afternoon in Kraków, where the 20th edition of the world renowned Jewish culture festival is in its full swing. The rabbi is talking to a Jewish American group in the leafy garden of the new Jewish Community Center in the city. He has heard these questions million times before and yet, he is not bored while answering them: “Are there any Jews in Poland at all? Isn’t this one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe? Where one can get a descent kosher steak?” "Yes. No. No, you can’t." I silently answer the questions addressed to the rabbi, and heard the same answers from the rabbi.
As a straight vegetarian for more than 30 years, the rabbi is not the go-to guy when it comes to recommending steakhouses, but he has also dedicated around 20 years to the rebuilding of Jewish life in Poland, a project considered by some impossible, given the damages. In 2000, Schudrich became the Rabbi of Warsaw and Łódź, while four years later he was appointed the chief rabbi of Poland. Prior to that, in the 80’s, he was a Rabbi in Tokyo for six years.
With a resume like that, it is natural that everything seems doable to him. Obviously, he is not afraid of challenges and new things to do. Matisyahu, the famous Jewish singer turned worldwide famous reggae singer, is performing live at the Temple synagogue Sunday. I am trying to secure two priceless tickets for the event when I am told, “Talk to the rabbi.” I’ve spoken with him many times before, but this advice catches me off guard. Fair enough, Jews have all kind of questions – some smart, some not so smart – for their Rabbi, but to waste his time asking about tickets? It turns out the rabbi is one of the reasons why Matysyahu is in town. He convinced the singer, who had a gig at the Open’er festival the day before, to perform in Kraków. On Sunday evening I joined a couple hundred people gathered at the synagogue for one-of-a- kind unplugged concert. The surprise of the night was the rabbi in a whole new role. Wearing a black hoodie, he grabs the microphone and causally announces the man of the hour. He also doesn’t miss an opportunity to refer to Judaism, quoting a Jewish truism about beauty and enjoying life. And the concert takes off.
When Rabbi Schudrich came to Warsaw for the first time in 1973, he mostly saw “multiple shades of gray, rain and gloom.” The city and Poland in general have come a long way since then. “Back then, in 1973, it was believed that there were no Jews left in Poland except a few thousand elderly. By 1990, there was some thought that maybe there were some younger Jews, by the mid-1990s we knew there were many more Jews than were previously believed but it was not clear if they wanted to express their Jewish identity. Today we know that some are expressing their Jewish identity and the challenge is to give them ways to express their identity in a meaningful way to themselves,” he recalls.
Today, given the circumstances, the Polish Jewish community is experiencing a true revival. The old saying goes that there are more Jewish festivals in Poland than Jews, but the rabbi firmly believes it is the other way around, and his hectic schedule shows it. His responsibilities include officiating at weddings, supervising the production of kosher food in Poland, and everything in between.
Therefore it comes as no surprise that his favorite place in Warsaw is his apartment, which he sees too infrequently. Next comes the roof top garden of the university library. Do the people abroad find it odd that he lives in Warsaw? Some do. “I never defend the city”, he says. “Anyone who cannot immediately sense the energy and verve, the hope and the tempo, should see a cardiologist immediately to check for their own vital life signs.” I guess he likes the city a lot after all. And yet he remains a true New Yorker, telling me that he misses the kosher Chinese vegetarian food.
It’s time for him to run, again. I ask him to imagine Jewish Warsaw 10-15 years ahead from now. “Well, I am not a prophet. But it could be that we will have a Jewish community similar to other small Jewish communities in other major European capitals and maybe even more vibrant than some.”