Jewish Feud Shuts Krakow Synagogue for First Time Since Holocaust

Masked Polish guards had been hired by the local Jewish community to prevent worshipers from entering the synagogue

Men praying outside the locked synagogue in Krakow last week.
Shlomi Shaked

An attempt by Poland’s chief rabbi to “break into” Krakow’s historic synagogue has highlighted an internal Jewish feud that has locked down the shul for the first time since the Holocaust.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich was denied entry to the 17th century building on Thursday. Earlier that week, masked Polish guards who had been hired by the local Jewish community prevented worshipers from entering the synagogue.

The Jewish community in Krakow says the lease between them and the local Chabad community, which has operated the synagogue for the last decade, expired last year, and that the building must be shut immediately for urgent renovations.

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However, some members of Krakow’s community have sided with Chabad and denounced the lockdown as a “against the Jewish spirit.”

On Thursday the conflict between the communities escalated when Schudrich was photographed jumping over a locked gate by the local media.

“We are frustrated,” he said, adding that the congregation’s rabbi had agreed to let him get into the synagogue to get his tefillin (phylacteries).

“But when I arrived he didn’t respond, I didn’t know what had happened, and I thought there had been a misunderstanding so I jumped over the fence,” Schudrich told reporters as Polish police arrived on the scene. “I found a guard there and I spoke to him through the window but he didn’t answer. We will pursue this, we won’t give in.”

Many Jews were angry at the sight of the chief rabbi scaling the fence of a synagogue that has been locked by the local Jewish community, which turned the spotlight on the strife within Poland’s small Jewish community and underscored how Jewish efforts to rehabilitate have been bogged down by internal disputes.

The Izaak Synagogue in Krakow dates to 1644. During World War II, it was shuttered, looted and defiled by the Germans. It was used as a church after the war and later abandoned. After the fall of communist rule in 1989 it was restored to Jewish ownership. Since 2008 the local Chabad community, headed by Rabbi Eliezer Gurary, has rented it from the local Jewish community.

The Izaak Synagogue in Krakow, June 14, 2018.
Krystyna Pruchniewska / Wikimedia Commons

Last week the community locked it and placed guards to prevent worshippers from entering for the first time since the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Krakow Jewish community officials say they signed a 10-year rental agreement with Chabad in 2008. They say Chabad was asked to vacate the premises after the lease expired last year, but refused to do so. The issue was taken to a local court which ruled that Chabad had to leave the building.

The Jewish community had a slew of complaints against Chabad, including accusing them of failing to pay their electric bills and then starting to pirate electricity after their power was turned off. The say the illegal electrical hookup puts the building at risk. They also charge Chabad with failing to see to other maintenance work, in violation of the lease, and say they now must renovate the building because of the poor condition it’s in.

Some community members, who support Chabad, posted on a Facebook group called Free the Izaak Shul synagogue that they were shocked and humiliated at what the local Jewish leadership had restored to. They said the community had raised the rent to a sum Chabad couldn’t afford, in violation of Chabad’s right to renew the lease under the terms of the expired agreement. They also protested that the local community had rented out part of the building to a local caterer, which raises suspicions as to the building’s continued use as a synagogue.

In a letter to the community’s rabbi, Schudrich wrote: “The Izaak Shul Synagogue is the only one in Krakow with a regular minyan [quorum of worshippers] where Jews can pray on a daily basis and study Torah and carry out the duties of the Jewish community in Krakow.”

He said that “masked, armed guards prevented Jews from holding morning prayers. It doesn’t matter what the dispute is about. I call upon the community to fulfill the basic responsibility of a Jewish congregation and open the synagogue’s doors so that Jews may worship there.”

With the Polish chief rabbi’s support, Chabad supporters are making plans to pray outside the synagogue’s gates.

Shlomi Shaked, an Israeli student active in the Krakow synagogue, told Haaretz on Saturday: “The issue here isn’t Chabad but permitting any Jew who is interested in doing so to pray.” He said that “to shut a synagogue like thieves in the night and to hire four masked armed guards is scandalous.”

“It’s so sad that we have to worship on the streets, instead of inside the synagogue,” he added. “It’s a shameful absurdity for the official Jewish community to be administering Jewish life in Krakow in this way.”