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Behind the Headlines: out in the Park in Slovakia: Jews Now Display Their Traditions

On a hot Friday morning in a park not far from the center of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, a dozen or so children are working on arts and crafts projects, supervised by several adults.

They are all wearing T-shirts with Hebrew lettering, and the boys wear yarmulkes or caps.

On a folding table lie the day’s projects — pictures of candlesticks, challah and other Sabbath symbols.

Some of the children are making bouquets of paper flowers to put on the Shabbat table, and some of the children had spent the early part of the morning helping bake challah in a nearby apartment.

Two policemen watch from nearby.

This is the last day of Bratislava’s two-week Jewish Day Camp, a program that expanded from only five participants when it started last year to about two dozen children this summer.

It is one of the activities begun by Bratislava’s new, American-born rabbi as a means of instilling Judaism into the younger members of a community which, like Jewish communities all over post-Communist East-Central Europe, is attempting to revitalize itself.

“Basically, the camp is fun, and the kids learn about Judaism. It’s so they’ll associate Judaism with fun,” Rabbi Baruch Myers, of Maplewood, N.J., said. “The experience is very important, but it really bears fruit for the whole year.”

Myers, 30, a member of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, was hired as the rabbi of the Bratislava Jewish community last summer.

NEW RELIGIOUS FOCAL POINT

His arrival as the first rabbi in Bratislava for at least a generation has been one of the most important events in the revival of the Bratislava community, giving a new religious focal point to a community which historically was a major center of Jewish learning in Central Europe.

Although estimates of Bratislava’s current Jewish population range up to 1,000, Myers said that only 400 people are formally affiliated with the community.

Most Bratislava Jews today are highly secularized, and — as elsewhere in East-Central Europe — know little about Judaism.

After the fall of communism in late 1989 and early 1990, the Jewish community initiated highly popular educational programs and other activities on Jewish history and culture, but these programs have had little religious content.

“There was a profound Jewish religious presence in Bratislava” before the war, Myers said. “Following the Holocaust, there was a tremendous destruction of Jewish life. Now, secularism here is very well entrenched. But people do still have memories of religion here.

“It’s like if you have scraped down a painting on a canvas to paint something else on top of it; sometimes the old image peeks through,” he said.

Myers said the older generation is sympathetic toward religion, but the students are difficult to reach.

Among Myers’ projects are the translation into Slovak and widespread dissemination in the community of colorful Chabad pamphlets giving simple explanations of Jewish holidays, their history and observance, as well as recipes for traditional holiday foods.

The publications were at first financed by private sources within Chabad, but have begun to be sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Fero Alexander, executive chairman of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities of Slovakia, praised Myers’ efforts, but said he had little expectation of a religious revival among Bratislava Jews.

“I can’t imagine the people here becoming Orthodox,” he said. “I can’t imagine that young people here will become religious.”

Among the reasons for this, Alexander said, is that it is extremely difficult or expensive to obtain kosher food and supplies.

Myers said he founded the summer camp, financed by both Chabad and JDC, for young children as well as for their families.

“One family had told their daughter all her life not to say in public that she was Jewish because it was not clear what the climate might be,” said Myers’ wife, Chana, who directs the camp. “But now she’s thrilled to be here with other Jewish kids.”

Chana Myers said that this reaction and participation in the camp clearly show that Jews in Bratislava are becoming more relaxed and open about their Jewish identities.

“People say that it will take a generation for the fear to go away, but you can see it happening,” she said. “Jewish pride is developing, the ability to say that you are Jewish out loud, without fear.”

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