Poland has a chief rabbi, so why don’t we?

How does a Conservative rabbi from the Upper West Side of Manhattan get to be the chief rabbi of Poland? That was the first question put to New York native Rabbi Michael Schudrich recently when he addressed a lunchtime gathering at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

It helps to be there from the beginning — Schudrich moved to Warsaw in the early ’90s for a job with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, an early major funder of the revival of Jewish life in the newly democratic country. He was on the ground as the Jewish infrastructure was developing, and as other Jewish activists came and went, he stuck around.

Longevity helps, too. In 2004 he was appointed Poland’s chief rabbi, although he’d been functioning as such for years.

A broad résumé is also key — along with his Conservative ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Schudrich picked up an Orthodox smicha from Yeshiva University, plus he spent six years as the chief rabbi of Japan, a kind of primer for what he’d face in Eastern Europe.

“I’m the ultimate insider-outsider,” he told us. And in Poland, that’s not a bad thing. He has the cosmopolitan veneer of being an American Jew, but he became a Polish citizen in 2005 and has been studying the language assiduously, thus demonstrating his long-term commitment to the country. “Government people from the president on down say, ‘He’s nasheh [ours],’ ” he said.

Schudrich fills a lot of roles within Poland’s Jewish community, from spiritual to political. First of all, he’s a rabbi, so he officiates at births, deaths, weddings, conversions and the like. Because so many of Poland’s Jews only discovered they were Jewish as adults, their parents having hid the family’s Jewish identity during the years of communist rule, Schudrich has also performed a great number of adult circumcisions — about 150, he estimates. He also fills in as the country’s kashrut authority, and is the local arbiter of halachah, or Jewish law.

Then there are his pastoral responsibilities, which include counseling these newly minted community members as they get used to the idea not only of being Jewish, but of always having been.

He’s also a community organizer, helping set up the religious infrastructure and finding a place within it for Reform Judaism as well as Chabad.

And he represents the community to the outside world, acting as the spokesman for Polish Jewry to the government, the Catholic Church, other religious and ethnic bodies and foreign dignitaries, including visiting Jewish groups.

“The greatest challenge being the chief rabbi of Poland is figuring out how to divide my time,” he told us, in what sounded suspiciously like a canned joke.

So as I listened to Schudrich talk, I couldn’t help asking myself: Why don’t we have a chief rabbi in the United States? Plenty of countries besides Poland have chief rabbis: Britain, France, Turkey, Spain, Russia. Some, like Israel and Argentina, even have two — one for the Ashkenazi Jews and another for the Sephardim. In Norway, you don’t even have to live in the country to be chief rabbi. Albania and Iran have chief rabbis, for heaven’s sake. So why not us?

Well, we tried, about 130 years ago. And it was a disaster. In 1888, 18 Orthodox congregations in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore got together to bring Rabbi Jacob Joseph from Vilnius, Lithuania, to New York as America’s first and only chief rabbi. He was brought over mainly to enforce kashrut standards, which he did by imposing fees on the kosher products he supervised; the fees were used to pay his salary.

Opposition was immediate. Consumers complained about the price increases, butchers and slaughterers complained about supervisors looking over their shoulder, and a group of New York rabbis, incensed that the title went to a foreigner, set up a rival rabbinic court that declared any meat Rabbi Joseph certified was not kosher.

By 1889, so few establishments were paying into the central system that Rabbi Joseph’s salary of $2,500 could no longer be paid. His reputation tanked, he fell ill and took to his bed, ending his days as a miserable pauper.

Who would want to be America’s chief rabbi after that?

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.