On May 11, the Nozyk synagogue in Warsaw was abuzz. More than 40 Jewish men huddled in groups, voicing animated opinions, struggling to maintain a whisper. Two authoritative figures guarded a back room, with lists in hand to admit only specified individuals. Moving quietly amongst those congregated for a meeting of Poland’s umbrella Jewish group was Helena Datner, the first and only woman ever permitted to this gathering, which had the potential to change the future of Poland’s Jewish community. Until this year, the group’s bylaws had stipulated: no women allowed.
The Nozyk synagogue, located in the confines of the city’s World War II ghetto, is one of the few buildings in Warsaw that defied destruction. On May 11, its occupants gathered to elect a board of directors to the Union of Jewish Religious Communities of Poland, Poland’s umbrella Jewish organization. The board would be charged with the task of ensuring the growth of the country’s fledgling Jewish population— a community that Hitler’s army and 50 subsequent years of communism ravaged but failed to annihilate.
With an ever-increasing population of people discovering their Jewish roots, a decision that NATO would move into Poland, and an international debate raging over the restitution of pre-war Jewish property, the constituency of the Board of Poland’s Union was to be of extreme importance. Union rules provided that decision-making power rested with representatives from nine local chapters. One rule added that the right to vote for the Board could only accrue to men. And the representatives of all of the chapters, except Warsaw, were male.
In sending Datner, Warsaw’s defiance of the all-male rule had little to do with a gender-based rebellion. Rather, according to Datner, the Union chapter there had never been formally established, so—technically—no voting representation, male or female, was permissible from the city where the majority of today’s Polish Jewish population resides.
But when the president of the Union suggested that Warsaw be officially initiated and submitted the names of five delegates, Datner was among them. And with the May 11 decision to allow those delegates to vote came an effective end to the Union’s prohibition against female delegates. And, says Datner, by extension “it is understood that if women have voting rights, they have the absolute right to hold a position on the Board.”
Locally, Datner anticipates that women will be elected to the Warsaw chapter, which will be formally created in September. She said the rules of the Wroclaw chapter had already allowed for the election of women, but no other chapters to date grant women that right.
The Wroclaw chapter has been run by Jerzy Kichler, now president of the national Union. Kichler, together with eight other members of the newly elected Union, is part of the post-war. Communist generation. Unlike their predecessors, the emphasis in Jewish tradition on male authority was not a part of their upbringing, and Datner attributes the May 11 vote allowing for the inclusion of women as voting delegates to this generational change.
“Nothing in even the most Orthodox tradition goes against women voting; it was simply a social tradition,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a 40-something newly elected member of the Union. “I’m ashamed it took so long to change it.” Krajewski, a professor and Poland’s voice for the American Jewish Committee, believes that “this change makes possible a much more substantial involvement of various people, especially women born after the war— young women who would otherwise just feel rejected.”
Datner admits that her election as a voting delegate was “a strange and pleasant feeling because no one has been one before.” But, she says, “I didn’t think that I should do this because I’m a woman. Because I am involved in the Jewish community, to have refused would have been dishonest.”