WARSAW, Poland — Taking a glass half-full approach to the extraordinary saga of the “rabbi” who duped a Polish community for years about his Orthodox credentials, but who turned out to have been a Catholic ex-cook, Poland’s chief rabbi noted endearingly Thursday that nobody in Poland would have pretended to be a Jewish religious leader just a few decades ago.
The deception achieved by Ciechanow-born Jacek Niszczota — who passed himself off as Israel-born Rabbi Jacoob Ben Nistell to the satisfaction of the Poznan Jewish community that utilized his volunteer services — is indicative of a growing interest within Poland in its once-large Jewish community, which was almost completely destroyed in the Holocaust, Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said.
“Who, 30 years ago in this country, would have pretended to be a rabbi, to say nothing of 70 years ago?” Schudrich asked.
Schudrich added that he had met Niszczota/Nistell a few times, and always found him to be “very sweet and smiley.” Still, he stressed, it was not good that the man misrepresented himself.
Niszczota admitted three weeks ago during an interview that he was not in fact a rabbi, was not from Israel, did not speak much Hebrew and knew little about Jewish customs, despite having claimed the opposite and winning the trust of Poznan’s Jews.
This week it turned out that he is actually a Catholic ex-cook, and that having dodged the media in recent weeks, he has now disappeared.
Until last week, he maintained a Facebook page under the name Yaakav Ben Nistell, which also said he was from Haifa and featured numerous photographs of his community activities. It has now been taken down.
Alicja Kobus, leader of Poznan’s Jewish community, said that the impostor was unmasked recently when locals saw him on television taking part in ecumenical observances with Catholic and Muslim religious leaders. They then informed local journalists about the hoax.
Krzysztof M. Kazmierczak, a reporter for “Glos Wielkopolski” or “The Voice of Wielkopolska,” was the first to document (Polish link) the true identity of the “rabbi.”
The Poznan community has now posted a warning on its website on Niszczota saying he “deceived not only the community members but also other people with whom he cooperated on behalf of the Poznan Jewish Community.”
As a volunteer, he was not obliged to prove his identity, and his activities raised no suspicion.
“He won our trust with the good things that he was doing: he baked challahs (bread) for Israel Independence Day ceremonies, he helped with maintenance of Jewish cemeteries, he had the right knowledge,” Kobus said.
He also led prayers and gave lectures on Jewish tradition, that were all correct, and did not protest when people from outside the community occasionally addressed him “rabbi,” Kobus said.
Kobus added she was impressed that he had apparently learned Hebrew and prayers listening to Israeli radio.
“I never checked his identity document,” Kobus said last week. “He said he comes from Haifa, his mother still lives there, and he has an Israeli passport and a son in the army. I believed that he is who he says he is because of how he looked and that he was able to pray in Hebrew and knew Jewish customs,” Kobus, who is also vice president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, told Glos Wielkopolski.