PRAGUE (Oct. 1)
In a 75-minute ceremony just before Rosh Hashanah services Sunday, Karol Sidon was formally installed as the rabbi of Prague before a standing-room-only audience at the city’s ornate Jubilee synagogue.
Sidon, 50, filled the gap left when the previous rabbi, Daniel Mayer, was forced to resign two years ago following revelations of his links with the local secret police.
In an address at his installation, Sidon — who was a well-known dissident playwright before becoming involved in Jewish studies at the end of the 1970s – – stressed the importance of knowing and caring about Jewish traditions.
As rabbi of Prague — and the only rabbi in the Czech republic — Sidon will be the spiritual leader of a Jewish community facing many problems as it copes with the transition from life under communism to life under democracy.
"Are you sure you only have one day to talk about our problems?" Sidon joked in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency a few days before his installation.
The Prague Jewish community numbers about 1,500 (out of a total of about 3,000 in the Czech republic), most of whom are elderly Holocaust survivors. However, the community has divisions and sometimes friction among the strictly Orthodox, liberal and Reform currents.
"My first goal is to help the community to be Jewish, to help these people feel that they are part of the Jewish nation," Sidon said.
"When Israel came out of Egypt, first they felt themselves a nation, and then they got the Torah at Sinai," he said. "I want first that (Prague Jews) feel that they belong to the entire Jewish people. There is no nation without the Torah and no Torah without the nation. You can’t divide them."
One of the most pressing problems facing the community involves Jewish identity. Many younger community members, including some who are the most active in community affairs, are children of marriages in which the mother is not Jewish and thus are not considered Jewish under traditional Jewish law.
"Most members of the kehilla (community) are Orthodox," said Sidon. "That’s OK. But in the future, the kehilla will build on young people, on assimilated people — my generation and my children’s generation.
"They are returning to Judaism but don’t know anything," he said.
Sidon said he has already held meetings with more than two dozen people who have "been waiting for years" to be formally converted to Judaism, and had arranged to hold weekly study groups with them to prepare the way.
"It won’t be just for those who want to convert — but for others, too, to learn about Judaism," Sidon said. "The focus will be on religious observance, simple things."
Sidon knows the problems and pitfalls of returning to Judaism from his own experience. Though he says he grew up feeling Jewish, he is the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother.
His father was killed by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944 and as a toddler, Sidon was forced to stay in hiding. Eventually, his mother remarried another Jewish man.
He underwent formal conversion to Judaism in 1978.
Sidon was a well-known writer and playwright in the 1970s and along with Vaclav Havel was one of the founders of the dissident Charter 77 movement in 1977.
Increasingly involved in Judaism and Jewish studies, he left Czechoslovakia after his conversion because of. his political views and in order to move to Germany to continue Judaic studies.
"I didn’t think I had enough strength to be a rabbi," he said. "I thought I’d finish my studies and then be a teacher."
After the 1989 revolution in Czechoslovakia, however, and the forced resignation of Rabbi Mayer, the Prague community called on him to go to Israel and complete rabbinical studies in order to return to Prague as rabbi.