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Prague Jewish groups to merge

PRAGUE, Oct. 20 (JTA) — For years, Prague’s Bejt Praha liberal Jewish community felt isolated from the official Orthodox community. But now, Bejt Praha is set to become affiliated with the Orthodox establishment. Bejt Praha was organized eight years ago to provide what it called a “more welcoming” alternative to the official Orthodox community. It reached out to assimilated couples and to Czechs keen to explore their long-hidden Jewish roots after the fall of the Communist regime. Its driving force was American expatriates living in the city. Bejt Praha’s executive director, Peter Gyori, admits that relations between the two groups were initially stormy. “When we started, we did not have an excellent relationship with the Prague Jewish community and there were many difficulties. We were seen as something unknown, and sometimes we had problems. For example, it was often difficult for us to use the synagogues,” he says. The two sides were brought together via the diplomatic skills of the leader of the Prague Jewish community, Tomas Jelinek. Gyori says that without Jelinek and his experience as a former economic adviser in President Vaclav Havel’s political department, the move may not have been possible. “Jelinek has played a major role in this, and I am grateful for what has been achieved,” Gyori says. Jelinek says the move was sparked after some members of Prague’s Orthodox community expressed the wish to have access to a Conservative rabbi. “This is a way to satisfy the needs of some members of the Prague Jewish community who would like a Conservative rabbi. But it is in everyone’s interest to work more closely together and be united,” Jelinek says. For Gyori, the move is a major milestone in the association’s history. “We are happy that we have achieved this. This is an incredible step and one of Bejt Praha’s biggest achievements. We have been receiving practical and financial support from the official community more recently, but now we will have open and friendly cooperation.” As a result of the move, Bejt Praha will have access “to all members of the official community, including marketing and use of facilities and premises such as synagogues and cemeteries,” Gyori adds. The affiliation has already been approved by the Bejt Praha board and is set to be ratified by the Prague Jewish community’s board later this month. Bejt Praha is now on the lookout for a new permanent Conservative rabbi, whom it will share with the official community. The group has also persuaded Rabbi Arnold Turetsky, who has a long association with the Prague community, to visit more regularly. Gyori says that the closer affiliation with the official community will help Bejt Praha’s membership grow. Recently, about 10 members departed to form their own group after Bejt Praha’s board dismissed Rabbi Ronald Hoffberg less than a year into his two-year contract. Hoffberg is now heading efforts to form an official Masorti, or Conservative, community that will be affiliated with Masorti Olami, the World Union of Masorti. Meanwhile, Jelinek criticized claims that the Orthodox community has attempted to isolate non-Orthodox converts in Prague. He rejected claims that appeared recently in The New York Jewish Week that non-Orthodox converts were prevented from buying kosher meat or parchment for mezuzahs. Jelinek says anyone is able to buy parchment and kosher meat in Prague, although only members of the official Orthodox community received discounted rates.

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