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Prague Jews look to shore up finances

PRAGUE, Aug. 7 (JTA) — Prague’s top Jewish official has unveiled plans designed to secure his community’s long-term future. Tomas Jelinek, a former economics aide to Czech President Vaclav Havel, said the plans will shake up the community’s administration and develop its real estate. Jelinek also told JTA that the proposals are designed to expand the short-term care facilities for Holocaust survivors, who make up half the official community’s membership of nearly 1,600. Jelinek says Prague is one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in Central Europe, but argues that essential expenses in maintaining the community’s 177 cemeteries and running educational and care facilities have been weighing heavily on its $4.7 million in annual revenues. “The Prague Jewish community has basically three main sources of income – rent from real estate, revenues from tourism and subsidies from the state from the ministries of education and culture,” he said. “We still have some real estate which has not been developed properly and does not bring in significant income,” he added. “The price of real estate here is going down. Expenses and inflation are growing faster than the revenues coming in, so we need to think in the long term about the money, so we will be looking at possibilities to invest.” That move will involve preparing a business plan and borrowing millions of dollars from banks over several years. In addition, much of the community’s holdings cannot serve as money-makers for religious reasons. “The biggest amount of wealth we have is in the cemeteries. According to the market it has a value, but according to Jewish law you cannot do anything,” he said. The community’s real estate arm, Matana, has identified three of its properties in prime Prague locations that could provide long-term financial benefits if sufficient funds are spent on renovation and upgrades. They include the site of a well-known nightclub, an apartment block, and an office and shopping complex. Talks may be opened with real estate companies with a view to embarking on joint developments. A fourth property, a hospital in the Hagibor district of Prague, has been earmarked as a new facility for Holocaust survivors. “The other three projects will bring a return in the next 15 years or so, but that would not help Holocaust survivors now,” Jelinek said. “The Hagibor facility would substantially increase the number of beds we can provide.” Jelinek also wants to introduce a more professional approach to the community’s handling of business. “The organizational structure here previously was not formalized,” he said. “Also, I didn’t inherit any archive,” and “papers were only kept in an ad hoc way. With business decisions, sometimes you don’t know what was agreed on five years ago.” Jelinek, who is studying ways to improve the community’s administrative structure, points to one step already taken — the introduction of more professional home care services — that should result in greatly improved care for the elderly. The community’s handling of its 50 or so blocks of real estate has drawn interest from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Jelinek said. The Prague Jewish leader said he was told recently by members of the JDC that the approach adopted in Prague could provide a model for other Central and Eastern European Jewish communities in terms of helping them move toward financial self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, Jelinek is still working on plans, announced through JTA shortly before Jelinek visited the United States earlier this summer, to re-establish Prague as a world center of Jewish academic excellence. Jelinek would like to see distinguished scholars use the community’s rich archives on Judaica in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, and said he has received a very positive response to the proposal.

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