Growing up in Poland in the aftermath of Communism, Mati Kirschenbaum only found out he was Jewish when he was 13 — and was not barmitzvah until at university. But having belatedly discovered his heritage, he began a love affair with his religion, culminating in his appointment as Bromley Reform Synagogue’s new rabbi.
Explaining his path to the rabbinate, he told the JC that his grandparents had lived in Lublin but fled to Russia to escape the Nazis. Many other family members were murdered in the Holocaust.
After being interned for much of the war, they made their way to Odessa and subsequently to Breslau. They changed their name to Krasniewski and had good jobs in a department store.
In the late 1960s, however, “there was an institutionalised, government-sponsored antisemitic campaign, which my grandfather was only able to survive because his colleagues stood up for him, which was very rare back in the day.” In such a climate, his father Jerzy’s generation was “forced by trauma and internal lack of resources to be secular”.
It wasn’t until 2000 that the 32-year-old’s family began to “come out as Jewish”, a phrase he uses deliberately in the context of “very much mirroring the language of people coming out of the closet in the LGBTQ community.
“They told me I should be very careful who I share this information with,” he recalled.
“It took a number of years for the climate of tolerance to get settled enough to enable a proper Jewish life.”
Involvement in Jewish youth activity was crucial to boosting his identity, particularly a youth club in his town which was open to “anyone Jewish or ‘Jew-ish’”.
Living in a small community, religious life had hitherto seemed to be about “a group of men in their 60s, 70s and 80s. It didn’t sound particularly appealing to a teenager.”
But the youth club “was a real game-changer — something full of energy and not so connected to family trauma and the Holocaust. It was a real source of positive identification.”
This was furthered at university in Warsaw where he “jumped straight into full-blown Jewish activism and became very involved religiously as well. And as Warsaw had a proper Progressive community, I got involved in Progressive Jewish life.”
It was a “more vibrant form of Judaism” than he had experienced in his home town community, which he described “in British terms as provincial United Synagogue — nominally Orthodox but everybody drives to shul.
“When I discovered the Progressive community, something clicked.”
Also while at university, he handled the tour logistics for Jews visiting Poland for the Forum for Dialogue.
Graduating with a degree in economics and management, he went to New Delhi for six months to study human resources. He found the community there “pretty insular — everybody was everybody’s cousin. I didn’t quite fit in.”
It was “realising how much I missed the Progressive community” that got him thinking about a rabbinical career.
Meanwhile, his twin brother Jan was on a rather different Jewish journey. “He started being religiously active roughly at the time I did, maybe a bit earlier. But he went Orthodox frum, which, of course, living in a very small Jewish community was problematic in terms of access to kosher food. He went on to make aliyah and then in Israel became secular.”
There were experiences of prejudice. When his twin was visiting him in Warsaw, the pair were spat at on a subway train after Jan removed his baseball cap to reveal a kippah.
But he does not feel antisemitism in Poland “is as bad as many people would like to believe”. The problem is that many in the country have not been “exposed to diversity”.
His rabbinic studies took him to Germany and Israel, as well as Leo Baeck in London. He is the global Progressive movement’s first rabbi from post-Communist Poland.
Although his parents had been surprised by his career choice, “having survived my twin brother going properly frum in his early 20s, having a son who decided to become a Progressive rabbi felt like an easier thing”.
He added that despite not being believers, they were “very proud and very supportive”.
The experiences of Rabbi Kirschenbaum’s family had made him “passionate about reaching out to people who are unaffiliated”. For example, his aunt, who is in her 70s, is starting to learn Hebrew with him after decades of trauma from post-war antisemitism. “Persecution casts a long shadow on people.”
As for his new role in Bromley, he was “thrilled” to be joining a youthful community of around 500. He has already taken charge of its 60-strong cheder on Zoom and is also instructing a bnei mitzvah class.
Michelle Brooks Evans, the shul’s chair, expressed “delight” at the appointment and was “looking forward to the exciting journey ahead together”.