The Jew vs. Jew Legal Battle in Poland: It’s All About Money

By Jan Jaben-Eilon

An ongoing conflict in which Jews are pitted against Jews in Poland may finally be decided by a three-judge panel in Warsaw tomorrow, October 14.

Then again, it’s very possible that whichever side loses the four-year-old battle, the case could be taken to either the Polish Supreme Court, or to the European Union. The stakes are obviously high.

In 2010, a lawsuit was brought against the Polish Minister of the Interior by the Union of Jewish Communities, also known as Twarda which was established in 1993, but was recognized as the only representative of Jewish interests in Poland as part of the 1997 Jewish Law, according to one of the attorneys involved with the court case. The basis of the lawsuit was the registration by the Interior Minister of Beit Polska, or the Union of Progressive Jewish Communities, based on the 1989 Religious Freedom Act.

According to Greg Galacki, an attorney with Hananim Galacki & Slovik, who represents Beit Polska, Twarda filed an application to the Minister of Interior to reverse the Beit Polska registration decision, claiming that Twarda is the only Jewish religious community that represents all Jews in Poland, including those of various branches of Judaism. Twarda claimed that it should have been consulted since it had a legal interest in the outcome of the registration decision. The Ministry rejected Twarda’s claim. Twarda then appealed to the Administrative Court in 2011, which ruled in its favor due to a procedural mistake which forced the Minister of the Interior to reissue its decision recognizing Beit Polska in 2012. Now the case is before the Supreme Administrative Court.

While Twarda contends it is the successor of the pre-World War II Jewish community, Beit Polska’s argument is that it represents the progressive movement that has been present in Poland for more than 200 years. Galacki says that Beit Polska is not just a Jewish community that wants to establish another synagogue, but is in fact a separate denomination. Its three communities, recognized and registered with the Minister of Administration, are Beit Warszvawa (Warsaw), Beit Trojmiasto (including Gdansk, Gydinia and Sopot) and Beit Konstancin.

Indeed, Beit Polska is a member of the European Union of Progressive Judaism as well as the international World Union of Progressive Judaism, which represents more than 1.8 million members in 1,200 congregations in 45 countries. Rabbi Daniel Freelander who became president of the World Union on September 1, told eJewish Philanthropy that the “politics surrounding this important case have been ugly, and the case is injurious to Poland.”

Poland was his first destination as World Union president. “From our American perspective of separation of church and state, it is difficult to stomach the idea of the state branding one particular (Jewish) organization over another,” he says. He notes that Twarda, whose religious leader is American-born Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, controls the Jewish cemeteries and mikvahs and also wants to control who can be considered a Jew in Poland.

Speaking about the Progressive Jewish communities in Poland, Freelander contends that Beit Warszvawa is a “very healthy congregation, not a fly-by-night. It has a very active, young community and is very committed. It’s a pretty healthy Jewish community by European standards.” He believes that the legal case is really a power play by Twarda which wants total authority over the Jewish community. “Twarda attempted to delegitimize Beit Warszvawa by hiring a Reform, Hebrew Union College-ordained rabbi” to head Etz Chaim congregation which is under its Orthodox control. The Israeli-born rabbi of Beit Warszvawa was also ordained by Hebrew Union College.

When asked why are you suing the progressive community, Rabbi Schudrich told eJewish Philanthropy, “This is a decision of the board of the community and not my decision.”

According to Miriam Kramer, chair of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, “Government recognition is important in Poland for financial reasons. Beit Warszvawa fought for recognition to get a piece of the pie, but the Orthodox counter-sued to get this reversed.” She also noted that Twarda hired an HUC-ordained rabbi to head its Etz Chaim congregation which she called “a highly unlikely member” of the European Union of Progressive Judaism (EUPF). “The European Union and the World Union decreed that its rabbi and staff are persona not grata at any of our events because they work for an organization that seeks to destroy Beit Warszvawa. I can’t even cross the threshold of Etz Chaim,” she says.

Kramer points out that there are 16 European countries in the EUPJ, “all very different with languages being the least of it. All have unique challenges. Orthodox is larger than Progressive Judaism in European so it tends to get government recognition and government recognition leads to government money.”

In Western Europe, from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands and Switzerland, the government doesn’t play a role in religion at all, she explains: neither in recognition or in financial assistance. In Poland, Hungary, Germany and Italy, there is government involvement. Germany, particularly, stands out. There’s a government church tax which is distributed to the various churches and synagogues based on the taxpayer’s choice.

Years ago, the Hungarian government said it wouldn’t recognize Progressive Judaism and the latter took the case to the European Union Court which said Hungary couldn’t discriminate against Progressive Judaism because it guarantees religious freedom. Freelander said he has “no doubt” that if the Polish court rules against Beit Polska, it, too, would take its case to the European Union.

Beit Polska’s attorney, Greg Galacki, doesn’t believe that will be necessary, however. He is optimistic about his court hearing on October 14. “I have received a positive response from the (Polish) government. It’s unusual for one Jewish community to raise a case against the government.”