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Historic Krakow Jewish Site Becomes a Nightclub

Controversy after Jewish community leaders rent out 19th century beit midrash

Stephanie Butnick
May 14, 2013
The former Chewra Thilim prayer house on Meiselsa Street in Kraków.(Wikimedia)
The former Chewra Thilim prayer house on Meiselsa Street in Kraków.(Wikimedia)

Tensions are high in Krakow’s Jewish community after a new nightclub opened this past weekend—in a 19th century Jewish house of study. Mezcal, Krakow’s new spot for “cool dance parties with DJ’s and agressive, even metal concerts,” debuted this weekend in the former Chewra Thilim beit midrash, in Kazimierz, the city’s Jewish quarter.

Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published photographs of the club’s construction, with walls being built in front of frescos, which were discovered during a 2008 restoration of the site, and sinks being installed where pews once stood. According to Jonathan Ornstein, director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, flyers were spotted around the city last week promising a club unlike any other—a shock to members of the Jewish community, who knew the building had been rented but were unaware of its unconventional new use. “To me it’s just an unnecessary thing that didn’t need to happen,” he told me.

How did this religious site end up as a boundary-pushing nightclub? According to the Jerusalem Post, the leaders of Krakow’s Jewish community signed off on a five-year lease of the property, which they gained ownership of in 1997, citing the financial strain of the building’s upkeep. Asked whether Mezcal, which is operated by non-Jewish Poles, is at all similar to the trendy event spaces opening in former synagogues around New York City, Ornstein gave an emphatic no. “It’s not a synagogue that was built in the 1950s,” he explained. “We’re talking about a 19th century building with important historical value.”

Issues of property, especially former Jewish religious buildings, are especially fraught in Poland. The Jewish Community of Krakow—an Orthodox community that numbers around 100 people—is the official body responsible for the ownership and management of Jewish religious sites that have been returned to the community. “Generally the idea is that they’re entrusted with the safe-keeping of property,” Ornstein said, adding that a conference on managing Jewish heritage sites was held in Krakow just last month.

Tadeusz Jakubowicz, the president of Krakow’s Jewish community and the main figure behind the deal, brushed off the controversy, saying, “The new tenants are serious people and we believe that they will manage this club with respect. If we still have problems, we will simply end the contract with them.”

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.