Controversy builds over Prague rabbi

Rabbi Karol Sidon, right, performs a wedding in Prague's Jubilee Synagogue in September 2001. (Magnus Bennett)

Rabbi Karol Sidon, right, performs a wedding in Prague’s Jubilee Synagogue in September 2001. (Magnus Bennett)

PRAGUE, July 19 (JTA) — An Israeli rabbinical court will decide the fate of Prague’s recently fired chief rabbi and the future configuration of the post. Karol Sidon was dismissed in late June after community representatives said he failed to perform his duties satisfactorily. He also was said to be excessively Orthodox for a community membership that is largely secular or non-Orthodox. Sidon has said his dismissal was politically motivated following the recent electoral success of a coalition headed by Tomas Jelinek in community elections. He accused Jelinek of wanting to depose other centers of power in the community. Jelinek, who heads the community’s executive board, has dismissed the accusations. Sidon remains at odds with the executive board over his dismissal and their plans to split Sidon’s former role among three rabbis, including a prominent American Lubavitch rabbi who has worked in Prague for the past eight years. Sidon, 61, was hospitalized last week with possible heart problems only hours before he was due to fly to Israel to attend a rabbinical court hearing on the dispute. Sidon has been unavailable for comment since being released from the hospital July 16. Sidon had claimed that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement was trying to wrest control of the Prague Jewish community following Sidon’s dismissal late last month, a claim Chabad officials have strongly denied. Just days before taking ill, Sidon, a former dissident and playwright, told JTA he was concerned about the recent appointment of Rabbi Manis Barash, former head of the Chabad center in Prague, as rabbi of the famous Old New Synagogue in the heart of the city’s Jewish Quarter. “Chabad is a Chasidic, messianic, ultra-Orthodox sect that is very far right of my Orthodox position and the idea of the members of the Jewish community in Prague,” Sidon said. Sidon, who still is chief rabbi of the Czech Republic, also argued that Prague is an attractive target for outside sects interested in infiltrating Jewish communities. “The Prague Jewish community is financially self-supporting, and for this reason it is interesting” to foreign sects, he said. Barash said in an interview on Monday that Sidon’s claims of a Chabad takeover bid were “total nonsense. I don’t know where he gets this idea, as if this is some kind of organized coup from Chabad headquarters somewhere.” Chabad, he said, “is a mainstream group whose rabbis hold positions throughout the world. I don’t know how many Chabad people Sidon has met in his life, but he certainly hasn’t heard anything from me in eight years here to suggest anything close to a messianic sect.” Members of the Old New Synagogue expressed concern at Sidon’s dismissal and the appointment of a Chasidic rabbi. A declaration released recently by members, including the shul’s two gabbais, or caretakers, said they were upset by the lack of consultation about the moves by the community leadership. They also expressed surprise that Barash had accepted the post without consulting with synagogue members. Gabbai Yaakov Shwab said he was against a Chasidic rabbi having a supervisory role at the synagogue. “The appointment of a Chasidic rabbi goes against 700 years of tradition at the synagogue,” he said. “There has never been a Chasidic rabbi here.” Barash, however, said the sad thing about his eight years in Prague “is that there is no congregation at the Old New Synagogue. Summer or winter, you will not find 10 local Czech people who make” a minyan. Barash added that certain members of the community had treated the shul almost like a private synagogue, instead of a “welcoming shul that every Jew belongs to. That has to change. There have to be new members.” Sidon’s illness prevented him from joining Jelinek and Barash at the rabbinical court, presided over by Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of the Jerusalem Beit Din. The court is determining the future functions of the Prague rabbinate office and the relations between that office and the country’s chief rabbinate, Jelinek said. Sidon is expected to make his representations to the rabbinical court after he is fully recovered Jelinek returned from the arbitration hearing July 15, saying rabbinical court officials had asked all sides to avoid media exposure until a decision was reached. The hearing couldn’t be concluded because of Sidon’s absence, Jelinek said. “Rabbi Sidon’s dismissal is an internal matter of the community, and the community will solve it, while taking into consideration the views of the supreme religious authorities of Israel and within the framework of itshistoric and democratic rules,” he said. Jelinek, who is secular, commented at the time of Barash’s appointment in early July that as community chairman he long had advocated “pluralism on all sides.” He also argued that the appointment was not a case of Chabad “pushing itself into the community.” He had asked Barash to supervise the religious life of the Old New Synagogue, Jelinek said. “He has shown during the last eight years in Prague that he can successfully run a synagogue and that he is committed to Prague Jewry,” he said. Jelinek said all sides had agreed to respect the rabbinical court’s ruling.

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