warsaw, poland | When Rabbi Aaron Katz walks the streets of Warsaw’s former Jewish quarter, scenes of that lost world fill his imagination: Families headed to synagogue, women in their kitchens cooking Sabbath meals, his father as a boy with payes.
But Katz’s life could hardly be more different from that prewar eastern European culture, at least in one key respect: He is Poland’s first openly gay rabbi.
Born in Argentina 53 years ago to parents who fled Poland before the Holocaust, Katz is the latest rabbi to play his part in reviving a once vibrant Jewish community that was all but wiped out by Hitler.
He settled into Warsaw’s historic Jewish district in March with Kevin Gleason, a former Hollywood producer on such reality TV shows as “The Bachelor” and “Nanny 911,” with whom he entered into a registered domestic partnership in Los Angeles two years ago.
They live only three streets from the birth home of Katz’s father in a modern and spacious apartment with their two dogs. Katz said he is moved by the links to his past, but keeps his focus on the future.
“I don’t think we will come back to this great Jewish life,” he said, referring to prewar Poland, a country where one person in 10 was Jewish and where synagogues, yeshivas and shtetls defined the landscape. “But I hope we will have a normal Jewish life in Poland.”
Katz is certainly an anomaly in conservative Poland, where to be either Jewish or gay is challenge enough — at least outside the cities. Of a population of 38 million, about 5,000 are registered as Jews, while thousands more have part-Jewish ancestry, and some have returned to their roots since Poland shed its communist dictatorship.
Katz is the second rabbi to serve Beit Warszawa, a Reform community with 250 members that was founded in the capital 10 years ago by Polish and American Jews who felt little affinity with some Orthodox practices, such as separating men and women during Sabbath services.
Homosexuals have won acceptance at differing levels throughout post-communist Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic and Slovenia recognize same-sex partnerships, as does Hungary since July 1. Poland hasn’t gone that far. It has an active gay rights movement and gay nightclubs in the cities, but the Catholic church and some conservative politicians still publicly describe homosexuality as abnormal and immoral.
Katz, a citizen of Argentina, Israel and Sweden, said so far he has not faced anti-Semitism or homophobia in Poland. But some community members, speaking in private, reveal a degree of discomfort.
One woman at a Sabbath service whispered that she found Katz’s open sexuality too “aggressive.” A longtime male member counseled against writing an article about the rabbi, lest anti-Semites use it against the community.
A third member, Piotr Lukasz, said he himself supports gay rights, and marched with an Israeli flag during a recent gay rights parade in Warsaw. But he said he had heard others complain that it would weaken an already small and fragile community.
“They say that Poland is not a ready for a gay rabbi because the outside society is very conservative,” said Lukasz, a 23-year-old student of cultural anthropology. “An openly gay rabbi is something very controversial.”
Others, though, seem comfortable, as evidenced by a recent string of dinners where Jews and non-Jews joined Katz and his partner at their home.
Katz’s life as a rabbi has been an evolution from one world to another. In the 1980s and early 1990s he was Sweden’s chief Orthodox rabbi, married to a woman with whom he had five children now aged 16 to 31. Later he lived and worked in Berlin and Los Angeles. He had a dark beard, but today is clean-shaven.
Katz’s journey away from Orthodox Judaism was part of his “coming out process,” he explained, but also was influenced by the realization that some of his children were not attracted to Orthodox worship. He concluded that Reform Judaism was more attractive to the young.
Still, he insisted that as modern as he is, he loves tradition. He keeps a kosher home and has enthusiastically embraced the Jewish tradition of matchmaker, using his dinners to introduce singles — usually heterosexuals but not exclusively.
Gleason, 50, was born Catholic but converted to Judaism for Katz. He left Hollywood and now does administrative and fundraising work for the synagogue.
Still, the openness of their relationship can catch people in Warsaw off guard.
“I introduce him as my partner they say, ‘Oh he’s also a rabbi?’ ” Katz said. “When I say ‘my partner’ they think I mean like in business. So I say, ‘No, no, no, we are living together.’ ”