Kaczynski leaves legacy of Polish-Jewish reconciliation

For Jews, Poland’s late president, Lech Kaczynski, was a man of many firsts.

He was the first Polish president to attend a service at a Polish synagogue, the first to celebrate Chanukah at the presidential palace, the first Polish leader to provide support for a Jewish history museum on Polish soil.

His death in Saturday’s plane crash along with his wife and 96 members of Poland’s political elite represents a huge loss for the Polish-Jewish relationship, Poland’s chief rabbi, New York native Michael Schudrich, told JTA.

“A lot of those who are politically right of center are open to Jewish contributions to Polish culture, but if you had a different person in power they would have been quiet about it. Kaczynski empowered those people to also have a voice,” Schudrich said.

Schudrich had been invited to accompany the presidential delegation to the April 10 event in Katyn commemorating the 1940 massacre there of 20,000 Poles by Soviet forces, but the rabbi could not attend because it was on the Sabbath.

On Sunday, mourners packed Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue, where Kaczynski once visited, for a memorial service for the victims of the crash. Nearby, some 100,000 Poles filled the streets as the president’s coffin passed by in a procession.

It was one of the great ironies of Polish history that a nationalistic, ultra-conservative Catholic who may have counted some anti-Semites as his supporters was a pivotal figure in the post-Communist healing of grudges that have so long divided Poles and Jews.

Kaczynski’s death, as tragic as it may be, is not likely to set back Polish-Jewish or Polish-Israeli relations, insiders say. The role of president is largely ceremonial in Poland; the government is run by the prime minister, currently Donald Tusk. Tusk and his Cabinet are considered allies of Israel and the United States, and are friendly to Jewish concerns.

“Fifteen years ago, such a calamity would have serious repercussion, but today relations are well established,” said Andrzej Zozula, executive director of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. Zozula said he had been friendly with the late president since their days together in the anti-Communist opposition in the 1980s. “The interests of all are more important than one man, even a person such as Mr. Kacynsnki,” Zozula said.

Examples of the president’s dedication to Jewish issues reads like the refrain in Dayeinu, the Passover hymn: “It would have been enough if…”

As mayor of Warsaw before winning the presidency in 2005, Kaczynski donated public land and money for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, to open in 2012.

In 2008, as president, he restored Polish citizenship to the 15,000 Jews exiled in 1968 by Poland’s Communist government in the throes of an anti-Semitic frenzy. Kaczynski was among Europe’s top political supporters of Israel.

“The president and his wife were great friends to Israel,” Israel’s former ambassador to Poland, David Peleg, said. “And those who traveled with him on that plane were not only personal friends of mine, but were dedicated to the preservation of Jewish sites in Poland.” Peleg singled out for praise Janusz Kurtyka, head of the National Remembrance Institute, Deputy Culture Minister Tomasz Merta and presidential adviser Mariusz Handzlik. Handzlik was so close with the Jewish community that he attended the bat mitzvah of Schudrich’s daughter.

Peleg, now head of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, noted that Kacynski lobbied against the Goldstone report criticizing Israel for its actions in the 2009 Gaza war. He also upgraded military, economic and cultural cooperation between Israel and Poland and opposed anti-Semitism by emphasizing the shared history of Jews and Poles.

“In my first discussions with him as mayor he talked about the Jews at Katyn,” said Peleg, referring to the Russian site where Kacynski was headed when his plane crashed. “He made the point that more than 10 percent of those killed in Katyn were Jewish officers.”

This focus took on special meaning when post-Communist Poland began reexamining its history without Communist censorship.

Long-simmering confrontations erupted: Some Jews felt Poles were too sympathetic to Hitler’s Final Solution; some Poles insisted that their suffering under Hitler was ignored by Jews. There were condemnations of Jewish-Communist collaboration, and of Polish Catholic disdain for Jews.

All along, the conservative Kaczynski, from the Law and Justice Party, did what he could to bring the two sides together.

“I would never vote for his party, I have leftist views,” said Oskar Skuteli, a member of Zoom, a Polish youth organization. “But the amount of things that Kaczynski did for Jews had never been done before by a leftist government. He was even called a Jewish agent by the radical right.”

To be sure, there were bumps in the road to Polish-Jewish reconciliation that still have not been quite smoothed over. For a short period, the Law and Justice Party partnered in a government coalition with the League of Polish Families, whose members have been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Kaczynski also never fully turned his back on Radio Maryja, a Catholic fringe broadcaster who accused Jews of terrorizing Poland with demands for property restitution.

Progressive Jews also found some of Kaczynski’s social positions disdainful. He twice banned gay pride marches in Warsaw, citing fears that homosexuals were trying to “spread their lifestyle.”

But few would deny that Kaczynski, along with others who worked to preserve Jewish culture and died in the plane crash, collectively represented a brain trust of Jewish-Polish-Israeli relations.

“Kaczynski and those around him, they are not replaceable,” said Monika Krawczyk, CEO of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. “His approach to Jewish issues has to do with his personal experience and convictions. We hope for people similarly sensitive, but they will not be the same.”

For now, the speaker of the Polish Parliament, Bronislav Komorowski, assumes the presidency until elections are held in two months. Komorowski is one of several top candidates for the post. All are likely to continue Kacynsnki’s path of Polish-Jewish reconciliation, observers say.

Be aware of the danger of fire with Chanukah candles

Candles burning, latkes frying, lights glowing. The holiday of Chanukah is wrapped in warm and comforting images, unless you’re a firefighter. Then you recognize these seemingly innocent traditions as hazardous warnings for a December you may never want to remember.

The combination of kids running around, mom attempting recipes of deep-fried treats and dad trying to bring a cheerful glow to the home often amount to a disaster zone for pans spilling, wires sparking and candles falling.

According to a U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) study, national fire loss for December is estimated at $990 million across the United States annually. Each year, these losses result from an estimated 128,700 fires that required a fire department’s direct response. These “December fires,” as the local firefighters refer to them, cause an average of approximately 1,650 injuries and 415 fatalities.

The USFA cites cooking as the leading cause of residential building fires in December, accounting for 41 percent of all the blazes. The agency explains that “cooks in the kitchen may find themselves distracted with holiday guests, entertaining and last-minute details. Unfortunately, these distractions can turn into fire hazards all too quickly. Over half (54 percent) of December residential building cooking fires are the result of either the food or the equipment being left unattended.”

These December fires also account for some of the most expensive and dangerous types of accidents, because they are often located at places and times where lots of people are congregated in the heart of the home. The USFA also notes that nationally “during this period, the daily number of residential structure fires caused by children playing fluctuates but remains around 40 per day” and increases throughout the holiday season as children are left unattended around candles.

But the Festival of Lights would be hard pressed to abandon the candles that so define the festival. Although Hillel and Shammai may have once disagreed on candle order and lighting direction, never did they consider abandoning the custom.

Candles, however, are what fire departments cite as being the catalyst for 3 percent of all residential building fires during the holidays. As the initial heat source in these cases, candles lead to residential building fires when they are left unattended or are lit next to flammable items. More candle-related fire incidents occur in December than in any other month.

Community members are becoming alarmed by these trends. The Orthodox Union (OU) was prompted to issue a statement concerning fire safety during Chanukah as part of its initiative, “Safe Homes, Safe Shuls, Safe Schools” program. Emanuel Adler, OU Synagogue and Community Services Commission chair, announced: “Any fire has the potential to do severe damage, but the pain increases when fire transforms a joyful holiday like Chanukah into a tragedy. Chanukah presents us with the opportunity to sensitize the community to dangers associated with use of fire in many of our observances.”

At Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s preschool, fire safety and stressing to children that candles are for grownups is an important component of teaching youngsters about the holiday, said Elizabeth Cobrin, an assistant teacher. As the teachers light the matches before saying the prayer, they say, “matches and fire are,” and the kids scream back “hot, hot, hot,” Cobrin said.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, associate director of OU’s department of synagogue services, emphasizes: “It is incumbent upon parents to be aware of the environment surrounding the candles, as well as what their children and pets may be up to. It’s always important to know what your children are doing, but it’s absolutely imperative when you have half a dozen fully loaded menorahs blazing.”

The Los Angeles Fire Department warns everyone to be aware of some basic safety precautions when using candles anytime of the year.

Questions, Prayers and Shabbat Lights

Interfaith Questions

Why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do bad things happen to me? Dr. Aryeh Dean Cohen paraphrased these questions at an April 5 interfaith dialogue on theodicy or how to reconcile a benevolent God with evil.

The roundtable dialogue, “Jewish and Christian Perspective on Theodicy: How Could God Let Something Like This Happen and What Can We Do About It?” was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian seminary in Pasadena, and was the second interfaith discussion on a series of topics.

“We have so much to learn from our Jewish friends, who give us permission to lament and engage in arguments with God,” said Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller.

Before Passover and Easter, rabbis and pastors listened to varying perspectives on how the two religions confront all the disasters occurring in the world.

“Can God’s justice be defended and should one even try to do so?” asked James T. Butler, associate professor of the Old Testament at Fuller. He said that it’s important to question, rather than accept things on blind faith or counsel others that it is God’s will.

“If we convey the fact that faith is strongest when unquestioned, we contribute to the spiritual infantilization of our neighbors,” he said. “We teach them to settle for the God we have, rather than God they read about…. Instead of discouraging those who suffer, we can be their voice.”

Cohen agreed: “Sometimes the only thing you can do is listen.” He said that at other times, “the only thing you can do is scream and yell and curse.”

But really, he added the question is not “why did God do this, but why did we do this?” When it comes to natural disasters like New Orleans or human atrocities like genocide, we can’t really answer the question of where God is. But “where am I is a question we have an answer to.”

Egalitarian but Spiritual

They say “two Jews, three shuls,” so why not one more alternative community?

That’s why a group of 20-somethings started PicoEgal, an egalitarian minyan where men and women, participating as equals, conduct an entire, uncut Shabbat and holiday service that incorporates singing and spirituality.

“The basic idea is to have a community with a davening in accordance with halacha that also has spiritual singing,” said one of the founders, Abe Friedman, a first-year student at the University of Judaism.

Modeled after New York’s Hadar congregation, which attracts some 300 people each week, PicoEgal is one of a number of recently established minyans here and around the world that don’t affiliate with a particular movement and don’t have a synagogue building. For now, the two dozen or so “members” of PicoEgal meet at apartments in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the first and third Saturday mornings of each month, but they are looking for a more permanent space to rent. However, unlike other religious communities that are looking for a permanent home — like Ikar, for example — PicoEgal has no plans to become a full-time congregation.

“We’re not a one-stop shop for everyone,” Friedman said. “We didn’t want this to be an entire community, so much as a davening community [that adds to] what was already available.”

In that same vein, PicoEgal is also starting a multidenominational Beit Midrash study program, beginning with a Torah portion class each Tuesday in May, taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers.

“While there are many opportunities for Jewish learning in the area, there is a lack of learning opportunities across the denominations. We wanted to try and provide a neutral forum for Torah learning outside any establishment,” Friedman said.

Just One Candle…

First it was Shabbat; now it’s candles…. What’s next? Kosher?

Ten years ago, Shabbat Across America began its campaign to get as many Jews as possible to celebrate Shabbat for at least one weekend a year. This May, a new organization is promoting “FridayLight,” a campaign encouraging 1 million women to light Shabbat candles — that’s 2 million candles!

“By lighting up each and every Friday night, you will not only bask in a personal moment of inner peace but also connect to a larger community of women everywhere who together hold the power to foster global peace,” reads the Web site (www.fridaylight.org), which features a pale redhead in a Oriental robe holding a fat, yellow candle — definitely not a traditional Shabbat candle for sure.

“With the flicker of a million flames each and every Friday night, we can bring light to some of the darkest places on earth and usher in peace throughout the world,” it adds.

The New Four Questions

Why is law important in the Jewish faith? Why isn’t the bible enough? Why does the practice of Judaism seem to be different from what is written in the Torah? How can Jewish law relate to modern issues?

These and other modern-day questions about religion will be addressed in “From Sinai to Cyberspace,” a course from the Jewish Learning Institute, a Chabad adult education program presented at Chabad locations in 150 cities around the world. Each course, taught by Chabad rabbis, provides a textbook and is supplemented by audio-visual presentations. The courses also are available online.

“From Sinai To Cyberspace” examines the interplay of the written and oral traditions and how they impacted the development of Jewish law, creating a vibrant and flexible system faithful to its roots.

The course begins in early May at Los Angeles at Chabad Centers throughout Southern California, including Los Feliz, Studio City, Burbank, Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Pasadena.

For more information on PicoEgal, e-mail picoegal@gmail.com.

For more information on the Chabad course and locations, visit www.myjli.com/courses.php.


Light One Candle

By rights, this should be a one-candle Chanukah.

Tradition tells us, of course, that we light two candles on the first night, three the next, and so on for eight days. In all, Jews would ordinarily light 44 candles over next week.

But after the World Trade Center attacks and the Ben Yehuda Street suicide bombings, a full-flame Chanukah seems, well, inflammatory. Who can retell the Maccabean victory against Greek bullies without considering the terrorist bullies who today threaten both America and Israel?

"The purpose of terrorists and those who send them and aid them is to expel us, to drive us to despair, to lose our vision. This will never happen," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week.

Let’s show Sharon that we agree. Let us use the symbols of the holiday to rededicate ourselves for battles at home and in the Middle East. The purpose of Chanukah, and the action of lighting of the candles, is to build unity, to join together the personal and the national commitment to Jewish values. We need to let the world know that this year Chanukah is not about dreidels and gelt, but about terrorism and guilt. One candle, each night, says it all.

The sages allow for this, you know.

In the Talmud, the rabbis remark that the minimum requirement for celebrating the miracle of the oil is one candle lit each of eight nights.

No demand for a brass or glass menorah, with nine candles in the shape of a tree. No necessity for a shamash, the candle used to light the other eight.

A chanukiah for every household is nice, Rav Yitzhak says. But a candelabra for each person in that household is better, notes the Rambam, since it broadcasts to the whole world that a great miracle has happened here.

But some years, less is more, especially when we need a miracle of our own. As a community, we need to conserve our energy, to make the fire of resolution come alive.

A one-candle Chanukah is a dramatic way of declaring solidarity between America and Israel in the fight against terrorism. By placing the menorah in the window each year, we are "publicizing the miracle" of the meager amount of oil which nevertheless lasted eight days.

But a single candle each night publicizes a miracle, too. It insists that we takes the current moment seriously, recognizing that we are facing adversaries every bit as dangerous as King Antiochus Epiphanes. He forbade Sabbath worship, kashrut and circumcision, the norms of Jewish life, and placed Greek gods in the Temple, and the sacrifice of pigs.

So too do terrorists seek to end our normal existence, air travel and a peaceful walk in a shopping mall. They want to fill our streets with panic.

Lighting one candle will teach our children, dramatically, that this is a special post-Sept. 11 Chanukah. (I’m not suggesting no presents, heaven forbid.) In the taste of our celebration, we’ll put the chocolate gelt where the mouth is.

While we grieve for the silly old days when Chanukah was merely Christmas without a tree, the new seriousness is not entirely bad for adults, either. It compels us to see the miracle of the oil in the most personal terms, as a lesson in how to withstand military and social attack. Chanukah is a story of survival, and we need its lesson today. Tell the children that you, too, see Chanukah in a new, more sober light, now that a skyscraper has gone up in smoke. You might even want to sing the Peter Yarrow song, "Light One Candle," along with "Rock of Ages."

Instead of our giddily comparing our holiday with Christmas, our Chanukah this year will build on the gravitas of its own Jewish history.

Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple after the defeat of the Greeks. You might want to ask your children to dedicate each candle to a separate theme. Some suggestions:

Candle No. 1 is for the innocent victims of terrorism, in New York, Washington, Jerusalem and Haifa.

Candle No. 2 is for the soldiers who put their lives on the line for the ideal of freedom.

Candle No. 3 is to refute the terrorist bullies who equate Israeli targeted assassination of Palestinian ringleaders with Palestinian suicide bombers targeting innocent civilians on a pedestrian street. May they not prevail.

Candle No. 4 is to refute the intellectual bullies in our own country who would use the current conflict to challenge Israel’s very right to exist. (See candle No. 3).

Candle No. 5 is for the days when Jews and Muslims lived together in peace.

Candle No. 6 is for victory over terrorism, in the past, present and future.

Candle No. 7 is for the leaders of the world, that they be guided by the desire for a lasting peace.

Candle No. 8 is for hatikvah, the hope of our people.

Happy Chanukah, one wick at a time.