Behind the Headlines: Prague Jewish Leader Tries to Attract Younger Generation

No business suit, no tie. The president of Prague’s Jewish community not only dresses informally, he is informal.

Zeno Dostal, author of 12 books and director of several films, does not want to put on an act as “president.”

“I have been a member of the Prague Jewish community for the past 33 years,” said Dostal in a recent interview. “I became primus inter pares (first among equals in Latin) when I was elected to this position in 1992. So what? I did not change.”

But his tasks have changed drastically. As leader of the Jewish community in the Czech capital, Dostal has taken the time from his busy life in the arts to develop social and economic programs for Prague’s small Jewish community.

By Dostal’s estimate, there are currently 1,350 members of the Prague Jewish community, of which 60 percent are over the age of 65. He puts the total number of Jews in the entire Czech Republic, which includes the states of Bohemia and Moravia, at between 5,000 to 7,000.

“Imagine, more than 35,000 Jews lived in Prague at the outbreak of World War II. At least two-thirds of them perished,” Dostal said in a low voice.

He added that half the survivors of the Holocaust emigrated by 1950. Later, under hardline Communist rule, emigration was virtually impossible.

Dostal noted that much of the current communal work focuses on the needs of the elderly.

“We do here our utmost for the elderly and needy people. We have organized additional hospital beds and special-care units for them. We provide 40 to 60 meals-on-wheels a day,” said Dostal, who also served as chairman of the local B’nai B’rith for many years.

But, he noted, efforts are also being directed at younger members of the community.

A NUMBER OF CONVERSIONS

He and his team of communal leaders have organized a youth club where 60 to 80 young people meet weekly. There is also a Hebrewlanguage ulpan that has some 18 students ages 13 to 30. The community has also witnessed a number of conversions.

“We had 19 giyurim (conversions), men between 25 and 30, who wanted to become Jews according to halachah,” or traditional Jewish law, said Dostal.

He also related a story about a 72-year-old man who recently came to Prague’s famous Altneuschul synagogue — built in 1270 and still in use today — and asked the rabbi there to perform his Bar Mitzvah.

As a young Czech boy, the man had left his country to join Britain’s Royal Air Force. But he recently returned to his native land to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah he had missed out on — more than 55 years ago.

Dostal was also proud of a new effort being directed at the youngest members of the community.”This is a very important day for me,” he said during the course of the interview. “I just received a check with a remarkable sum of money from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. We are opening with this money the first Jewish kindergarten in postwar Prague.”

Housed on the premises of a state-run kindergarten attended by 150 children, the Ronald S. Lauder Kindergarten, Prague, has three rooms that will serve 12 Jewish children.

“The kids will get Jewish education, and we will also provide them with kosher meals on a daily basis,” Dostal said proudly. “But we will try not to isolate our children from the majority there. It will be fruitful for both (Jewish and gentile children) to see their respective traditions and festivals.”

The kindergarten was to be inaugurated this week for the new school year, just in time for the children to start learning about the traditions of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The inauguration, Dostal said, will bring him one step closer to fulfilling his dream: creating a young community that will take Jewish life in Prague into the future.

In addition to his communal work, Dostal has also led a fruitful artistic life. During the years of Communist rule, he was unable to publish his books. During those years, Dostal said, “I was working in the coal mines and somewhat later as a theater props manage.”

It was only after the weakening of Communist authority that he could harvest the fruits of his literary ambitions and start publishing his books one by one.

Five of his 12 books were published after the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, when the Communist leadership resigned and the first Cabinet in 41 years without a Communist majority took power.

Dostal has also been active in films. His previous directorial projects have dealt with the fate of the Jewish people during the war years. The film he is currently working on, “Galut (or Exile) in the Valley,” deals with Jewish life from 1920 to 1930.

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