Only Rabbi in Slovakia Aims at Revitalizing Community

Rabbi Lazar Kleinman took up his post in Kosice as the only rabbi in Slovakia just before Rosh Hashanah and, despite what may seem overwhelming odds, he has ambitious plans to rebuild the local Jewish community into a viable and vibrant congregation.

Kosice, in the far east of Slovakia, has a Jewish population estimated at about 350 families — perhaps 1,000 people.

The 53-year-old Kleinman, born in Transylvania, educated in Israel and an Australian citizen whose last rabbinical post was in Helsinki, Finland, took up the post of rabbi here in August. A### of October, in all of Czechoslovakia there were only two rabbis — himself in Kosice and Karol Sidon in Prague.

“I plan to stay here as rabbi indefinitely,” Kleinman said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the Kosice Jewish community office.

“Without fantasizing or dreaming, if, say, in 20 years, I will have put the Jewish community here into continuance of Jewish life, Jewish education, Jewish community life, then I will have accomplished something.”

Kleinman said he was looking forward to the challenge and stressed that his emphasis will be on education. He said he pinned all hopes on the younger generation.

“The situation here is very bad,” he said. “What can you expect after World War II and then 45 years of communism? You actually have nothing. Even what exists has to be rebuilt.”

He described the situation of Jewish life in Kosice as “bankrupt.

“There needs to be education,” he said. “Not just for children, but also for those who were educated under communism.”

He said, “There’s been no possibility to practice or to have Jewish education. No Judaism. No Jewish feeling. Nothing (Jewish) at all except among old people.”

Nonetheless, Kleinman freely admitted that he had alienated a number of older members of the congregation by essentially cutting them out of his plans to revitalize the community.

“Thanks to God, the leadership of the Jewish community here is not in the hands of old people,” he said. “The board of the community is made up of young people.

“I am not listening to the old generation here,” he said. “The old people think that they know Judaism, but they are backwards by 50 years.”

Kleinman said that one of the areas of conflict with the older generation was in the handling and supply of kosher meat.

“As soon as I arrived, I changed the situation,” he said.

He said that before his arrival, there had been a shochet who slaughtered the meat, but who did not make it kosher. Individuals kashered the meat on their own.

Now, he said, he himself supervises the slaughtering and the kashering of all meat. He wants to establish a modern, hygienic kosher meat supply system, he said, in which meat will be sold to community members slaughtered, kashered, wrapped in plastic and frozen.

“This has provoked problems with some of the older people,” he said.

He outlined his plans for the community.

“We are going to open a kindergarten soon. A cheder for nursery-school children will also be opened,” he said.

Also, he said, the organization of the youth club would be changed. Until now it was controlled, he said, by a non-religious Israeli political party.

“Now it will be controlled by the Jewish community,” he said.

Already, he said, he had organized two-hour educational sessions twice a month on Saturday evenings for people between the ages of 15 and 30. He also initiated a monthly course explaining Judaism aimed at families and the 25-50 age group.

“We are also planning a new, modern old age home,” he said. “I think that that’s a lot to have accomplished in just two months here.

“But we are not taking the advice of old people,” he repeated. “The old people are still under the depression of the communist system. (With) all respect to old people — but they practice religion isolated from the new generation.”

He was carrying out his projects, he said, with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“The Joint is our big supporter. Without the involvement of the Joint, no changes could be achieved,” he said.

Virtually all Jewish community and educational functions, including the old age home, will be centered in the community’s old courtyard in the center of Kosice, where there is already a house of study and a kosher restaurant.

The rabbi and his family will move into an apartment in the courtyard complex as soon as restoration work is completed.

Kleinman said that so far he had not met with any organized anti-Semitism on the part of officials or ordinary people in Kosice.

Local officials, he said, attended his installation on Sept. 20, and had been supportive.

At this point, one of Kleinman’s priorities is learning the local language, Slovak. He speaks more than half a dozen languages — but Slovak is not one of them.

So far, he has been managing in Hungarian, which many local Jews and non-Jews speak.

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