Homegrown Rabbi Tests the Waters by Serving Jews in Czech Spa Town

A chance meeting 13 years ago changed the course of Rabbi Samuel Abramson’s life.

Now he’s hoping to bring change and a new sense of spirituality to a Czech town’s entire Jewish community.

Abramson has just joined the picturesque spa town of Karlovy Vary as its first rabbi in 60 years. If it weren’t for that chance meeting, he wouldn’t have become a rabbi at all.

He left his homeland, Czechoslovakia, in 1988, a year before the fall of communism, and headed to Zurich, where he planned to continue his veterinary studies. There he met Basel Rabbi Israel Lewinger, an Orthodox rabbi and veterinarian.

“He inspired me to follow a similar path and made me realize that’s what I really wanted to do,” Abramson told JTA.

The following year he moved to Israel and studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Jewish Studies. In 1993, he returned to Prague to take his final veterinary exams.

Now, as he takes up his new post, those qualifications are being put to good use — Abramson oversees kosher standards not just for local food establishments but throughout the country.

But the 34-year-old rabbi’s primary goal is a more spiritual one.

“Decades of communism and fascism have taken their toll and because of this spiritual genocide, Karlovy Vary’s Jews are assimilated Jews,” he says. “I want to install a new sense of traditional religious life and to strengthen the Jewish spiritual base. I also hope to improve life for the town’s Jewish community.”

One of the benefits of his appointment this month is that the community’s 90 members will be able to take part in daily services. Until now, they were restricted to Saturdays. The new rabbi also hopes to expand the number of tourists at his services, who currently number between 15 and 30.

“I want people to come to Karlovy Vary for traditional spiritual religious services and worship and particularly want to focus on installing traditional values in children and youths,” he says.

Abramson first became interested in the post during discussions with Karol Sidon, chief rabbi of the Czech Republic, who praised the town’s “lively” Jewish community and mentioned that its numbers were boosted by a large number of spa visitors, many of them from Israel, the United States and Russia.

Although based in Israel, where he lived with his wife and three children, he had kept in regular contact with Sidon, Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, and Czech Jews.

Alexandr Gajdos, leader of Karlovy Vary’s Jewish community, welcomed the appointment, saying, “We didn’t want to continue our old system of using a lay rabbi.”

Although Abramson is what is known as modern Orthodox — although he shies away from the term — the community had originally sought a Reform rabbi.

“There are certain problems because some members think an Orthodox rabbi is not suitable for Karlovy Vary, but a lot of people did not have a traditional education in Judaism,” Abramson says. “An Orthodox rabbi has been entrusted to do the job here and I am taking an Orthodox direction, but I want to be tolerant.”

Abramson also hopes to offer support to Sidon.

“I may do services for other communities” because I want to see more Orthodox rabbis, he says.

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