Chief Rabbi of Poland Stresses “Unity is Our Secret Weapon”

In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, Rabbi Schudrich provides a rare and essential Talmudic guide to better equip and help Jews navigate spiritually and pragmatically through these difficult days and weeks ahead.
November 30, 2023
Photo provided by Magdalena Sommer; Oct. 2023; Warsaw.

Less than a week after the most heinous terror assault in Israel’s history, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich instituted a public prayer for peace in Warsaw. Rabbi Schudrich presides over the Nożyk Synagogue on Twarda St. in Warsaw. This seminal institution is the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of prayer in the city as it officially opened to the public in 1902. Damaged by an air raid in Sept. 1939 at the onset of World War II, the building was partially restored and returned to the Warsaw Jewish Commune in the months after the war. It was not completely rebuilt until April 1983, however. Rabbi Schudrich conceded in 2019 that, “The Jewish community [in Poland] is a small community struggling to reassert its Jewish identity while being responsible for preserving its glorious past,” he told Jewish News Syndicate (JNS).

Rabbi Michael Schudrich. Photo by Cezary Piwowarski under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

As a Conservative Jew in New York growing up with three siblings, Schudrich studied religion at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island before attending the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in Manhattan for rabbinical school. He then earned his master’s in history from Columbia University. His first trip to Poland was as an 18-year-old in the early ’70s. As also reported by JNS, he “returned again and again, joining forces with the Jewish Flying University, where people gathered secretly.” After graduating from JTS, Rabbi Schudrich headed a small congregation in Japan, largely composed of tourists, professionals and post-army-duty Israelis.

It was the help of Ronald Lauder, the businessman who has been president of the World Jewish Congress for two decades, that brought Rabbi Schudrich to Poland for the long term. “Ronald is the one who got me here,” Rabbi Schudrich also told JNS.  “Without him, I don’t know if we could have accomplished a fraction of what we have.” Beginning in 2000, after returning to the U.S. to receive his second rabbinical ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, Schudrich served as rabbi of Warsaw and Łódź. In 2004, he accepted the job of Poland’s chief rabbi.

Under the Sigismund’s Column in Warsaw on Oct. 10, Rabbi Schudrich called upon people “to participate in a shared, public prayer for peace,” which addressed “all people of goodwill.” The event, which was held just a few days after Hamas’s multipronged and deadly terror attack, was attended by many dignitaries, including Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yaakov Livne as well as U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski. Several rabbis from throughout the country also attended the gathering among throngs of others. “We can never forgive this barbarism; we will never be silent,” Rabbi Schudrich said, as reported by TVP World. “I lack the words to describe this tragedy. It’s difficult for me to say whether the current situation in Israel can be called a war. Military actions are not just about fighting the army, but affect defenseless civilians. This is not only an assault on Israel but on every Jew around the world. This is an assault on every moral person around the world,” he said.

Photo by Magdalena Sommer at the Nożyk Synagogue during a special presentation of the shul’s history held on Nov. 29, 2023. The event was organized by the Schorr Foundation’s Grażyna Pawlak.

In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Journal of Los AngelesRabbi Schudrich provides a rare and essential Talmudic guide to better equip and help Jews navigate spiritually and pragmatically through these difficult days and weeks ahead.

Jewish Journal: Speak to the notion of “light vs. darkness” when it comes to Israel’s war with Hamas. Broadly speaking, what are the current existential questions posed for the Jewish people?

Rabbi Schudrich: This war is not between Israel and the Arabs or the Palestinians. It is a war between Israel together with the Jewish people against a terrorist group, Hamas, that wants to kill both the State of Israel and all Jews around the world. Simply put: [it’s] a war between good and evil.

Jewish Journal: As Chief Rabbi of Poland, what are the crucial aspects you’re seeking to impart to your congregants and to the Jewish Diaspora in light of the devastating terror assault on Oct. 7? 

Rabbi Schudrich: We must be more united than ever. Divisions within our people weaken us.  Unity will always strengthen us.

Jewish Journal: Have the themes of the weekly Parshas evolved in recent weeks? What pieces of Jewish liturgy can help Jews gain some degree of comfort and solace?

Rabbi Schudrich: The Parsha always has a special message and lesson for what we are experiencing right now. The Lubavitcher Rebbe often emphasized this. My challenge continues to be finding what the unique special message is for us right now from this week’s Parsha.

Jewish Journal: Take me back to the morning of Oct. 7. What series of ideas have raced through your mind since then?

Rabbi Schudrich
: Since Oct. 7, I have been completely focused on what we can do to help: materially, politically and most importantly, spiritually. But all three elements are essential.

Jewish Journal: What do you consider your role as Chief Rabbi of Poland to be in the wake of these atrocities?

Rabbi Schudrich: My role is the same as any other Jew or any other moral person. [It’s] to speak the truth in the loudest and most persuasive manner possible. [My role, too, is to] support all those who need my support and give solace as is needed.

Jewish Journal: The question of “NEVER AGAIN” has long been a common refrain since the Shoah. This maxim seems to have fallen by the wayside in light of this heinous terror assault. What must be the new refrain for Jewish institutions and synagogues in particular?

Rabbi Schudrich: Am Yisrael Chai. Unity is our secret weapon.

Am Yisrael Chai. Unity is our secret weapon.

 Jewish Journal: Were you heartened by the near 300,000 in attendance at the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14? There also was a strong presence at a March for Israel in Warsaw. What do you make of each?

Rabbi Schudrich: The Washington March for Israel was amazing! My daughter, brother, sister-in-law, nephew and cousin were there. We also had an amazing March for Israel here in Warsaw, and we marched through the main street of Warsaw, known as the Fifth Avenue of Warsaw. There were Israeli and Polish flags flying [along with] photos of Israeli hostages. [There was] singing and praying together with one people—Jews and non-Jews together. [We were all] marching for the right of Israel to exist and defend itself, marching for the hostages to ‘bring them home now,’ and marching against antisemitism and hate. [This was meant for] moral people marching together to save the soul of the world.

Jewish Journal: Would you give a summary of who you personally know in Israel and what they’re now doing? For instance, on your Instagram, you’ve posted a rabbi from Poland who is a reservist. He stressed that Jews “must be one,” regardless of affiliation or political point of view. Will you speak to this notion of “oneness”?

Rabbi Schudrich: Most of my extended family live in Israel and I have two cousins who were called back up to the army and are serving in or near Gaza. My wife’s cousin is one of two female navigators for fighter jets. Two rabbis who formerly served in Warsaw were also called up back to the army and are serving in the north. Lots of children and grandchildren of my close friends are back in the army. For many of us, this war is also very personal with family and friends on the front and some have been wounded and killed.

Jewish Journal: The rise of antisemitism worldwide since Oct. 7 is a phenomenon impossible to ignore, but in lieu of discussing it in fear of amplifying unnecessary attention to hateful rhetoric and actions, what are the best mechanisms to counter these nefarious elements? Where are these seeds of hate emanating from and why? What can those who seek “truth and light” best do in order to counter it?

Rabbi Schudrich: Seeds of antisemitism come from both traditional sources, but also people being influenced by lies being told on social media. We need to be much better at getting our message out on social media. However, it is an unfair fight. We write the truth. The terrorists write lies and hate.

Jewish Journal: As Chief Rabbi of Poland, how are you mediating various congregations among Israel, U.S. and Poland’s Jews?

Rabbi Schudrich: It’s always the same goal. It’s to bring Jews and [other faiths] of goodwill closer.

Jewish Journal: As to combat the scourge of antisemitism, are you worried about the rise of such nationalist groups to exploit this terrible time that’s befallen the Jewish people?

Rabbi Schudrich: I do not worry as I plan and work to combat all hate.

Jewish Journal: Do you see parallels with Hamas’s brutal assault on Oct. 7 with the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Rabbi Schudrich: The Ukraine war is connected since Russia’s been training Hamas terrorists in Syria. This is not parallel. It is simply connected.

Jewish Journal: In broad strokes, what do you suggest the emphasis of Jewish diaspora should be over the next weeks and months?

Rabbi Schudrich: We need to emphasize that this is not a war between Israel and Palestinians. This is a war to uproot terrorists from Gaza. To accomplish this, we need to be very active in social media and most importantly be together. Unity. Oneness. When we achieve unity, we will succeed, and [ultimately] to work and bring peace to all people of the Middle East.

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