A Chanukah ‘miracle’ in Prague

PRAGUE, Dec. 8 (JTA) — Evan Lazar took a deep breath and walked slowly out of Prague’s Jubilee Synagogue onto a cold but sunny Jeruzalemska Street. The co-founder of the non-denominational Jewish community of Bejt Praha had hoped to see a couple of hundred people turn up for a special pre-Chanukah celebration Sunday designed to introduce Judaism to Jews whose families have long been assimilated into Czech society. What he saw shocked him. “There were people standing in every direction, forking out from the synagogue as far as the eye could see,” he said. “The lines were so long that people had to wait 45 minutes to go through security checks.” The event was the latest signifying the growing strength of non-Orthodox Jews in Prague. Estimates put the numbers at between 1,500 and 2,000. Organizers were so overwhelmed by the turnout that a second Chanukah celebration was held in order to accommodate the crowds. “As not a particularly religious holiday and at a time of year — Christmas — when everyone else is identifying somehow with some religious affiliation, we felt that Chanukah was the perfect time to do this type of outreach event,” Lazar said. Bejt Praha had a lot riding on the event. In a rare display of cooperation between Prague’s Jewish groups and institutions, tens of thousands of dollars were spent on a slick advertising campaign designed to reach out to unaffiliated Czech Jews. In the weeks leading up to the event, posters bearing the slogan “Is Chanukah your holiday?” were placed in every subway station in Prague. The event was also carried in national radio and television stations. The event, which was supported by Prague’s official Jewish community, the Jewish Museum in Prague and the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities, included Chanukah songs sung by local Jewish school pupils and Jewish music performed by professional musicians. Visitors were also given special Chanukah kits containing a menorah, a box of candles with instructions on how to light the menorah and a collection of prayers translated into Czech. Bejt Praha and event supporters say they know they have a challenge ahead of them in reaching out to unaffiliated Jews. “In the period between World War II and the fall of the Communist government here, most Jewish people married non-Jewish people. There was huge assimilation because people were afraid of talking about their Judaism, afraid to connect, afraid to go to synagogues,” said Lazar during the celebration. “There are hundreds of Jewish people here today who have probably never celebrated Chanukah or any other Jewish holiday in their life,” Lazar added. “We have been pushing for a big outreach for years, as there are people who want to reconnect to Judaism in some way but who maybe find that going to synagogue isn’t the way they want to reconnect.” Bejt Praha’s executive director, Peter Gyori, was given a hint of what was to come when he asked a question for a phone-in on national Czech television last week. “I asked the question, ‘How many branches does a chanukiyah have?’ and 1,200 called in during the show. Another 400 called after the show. The television station told me this was a record number of calls this year,” he said. A chanukiya has eight branches. Yechiel Bar-Chaim, country director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which contributed to the event, said he was delighted at its success. “This is one of the most imaginative approaches to Jewish outreach anywhere,” he said. “It is really remarkable. The response from the Czech public just demonstrates what a tremendous reservoir of interest there is if only we can find the means to reach these people.” Prague’s official Jewish community also has taken steps recently to open up its community. Last month it voted to end its Orthodox monopoly by officially recognizing Conservative Judaism. The move will allow organizations like Bejt Praha to receive funding from the community for their own Conservative rabbis and make use of official community synagogues. Theoretically, a Conservative rabbi can now be elected chief rabbi of the country. The chairman of Prague’s Jewish community, Tomas Jelinek, told JTA that the move had been a response to members who wanted alternative ways of practicing Jewish life. “We also agreed to extend the rights of Jews of non-halachic origin,” said Jelinek, referring to Jewish law. “Because there has been a big assimilation of Jews in the Czech Republic and in Prague, some kids and relatives were not able to be members of the Jewish community. It is more open now,” added Jelinek. Bejt Praha’s visiting Conservative rabbi, Morton Narrowe, praised the official community for its steps. “I am very proud of what the Prague community is doing. I think it could be very much of a pioneer effort, showing the rest of Europe that this is possible,” said Narrowe, a former chief rabbi of Sweden. “Prague has said, ‘OK, we are not in any way going to interfere with Orthodox Jewish religion but at the same time we are going to make it possible for the other people to feel welcome to come in.’ I think this is an extremely important step.”

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