WARSAW, Poland (AP) — A Jewish leader in Poland said Thursday that her community was deceived by a Polish Catholic man who pretended to be an Orthodox Jew, wearing a beard and payots — curly sideburns in front of the ears — and leading prayers in Hebrew.
Alicja Kobus, leader of Poznan's Jewish community, said that the impostor was unmasked recently when people in his hometown saw him on television taking part in ecumenical observances with Catholic and Muslim religious leaders. They then informed local journalists about the hoax.
Kobus told The Associated Press that the man presented himself to the community as Yaakav Ben Nistell from Haifa, Israel. Polish media say his real name is Jacek Niszczota, a cook from Ciechanow, a town in north-central Poland. He has vanished since being unmasked.
The Poznan community has 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, the man 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 learned Hebrew and prayers listening to Israeli radio.
Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said he met the man a few times and always found him to be "very sweet and smiley."
Schudrich said that while it's not good that the man misrepresented himself, the incident is indicative of a growing interest in Poland in its once-large Jewish community, which was nearly destroyed by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust during World War II.
"Who 30 years ago in this country would have pretended to be a rabbi, to say nothing of 70 years ago?" Schudrich said.
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw contributed to this report. This story has been corrected to show the spelling of the Polish town is Ciechanow, not Cichanow.