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Around the Jewish World Prague Jews Hope Strife Will Lead to Improvements

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Can the strife that has afflicted the Prague Jewish community over the last two years end up serving the greater good? That’s the question community members are asking as they try to move forward after an extraordinary election was held last month in an effort to end conflicts over leadership, rabbis and money that have divided the 1,500-strong community.

“I think something good has definitely come out of all the fighting,” said Sylvia Wittmann, who runs Bejt Simcha, the Czech capital’s Reform congregation. “A lot of issues were brought to the forefront and never again will the leaders be able to do whatever they want.”

The new leaders say they’re only too aware of such concerns.

“There’s no reason to believe that these recent disputes need to have a long-term impact on the community,” said Frantisek Banyai, the newly elected chairman, who hopes to be a conciliatory figure.

He said his top priority is pushing through the Hagibor home for the aged, a $7.3 million project championed by his predecessor, Tomas Jelinek. Jelinek had accused his opponents of being more interested in building monuments than in taking care of Holocaust survivors.

Banyai was part of a platform, Community for All, formed last year with the goal of removing Jelinek from office. The group was a mix of religious and non-religious Jews, including some who were loyal to the pre-Jelinek leadership and others who opposed what they called Jelinek’s “dictatorial” leadership style.

Jelinek, for his part, argues that his critics simply couldn’t stand to see him reform the community’s entrenched power structures.

His opponents ousted Jelinek during a special community meeting last November, though Jelinek refused to recognize the move. In this year’s elections, which were viewed as an acceptable solution by both sides, Community for All won three-quarters of the seats on the 24-member board. Jelinek and his supporters, called Coalition for a Democratic Community, won three seats, and another three went to independents.

Jelinek’s supporters and detractors have issued a long list of accusations and counter-accusations. A public rift surfaced in 2003 when a principal at the Lauder School, who was backed by Jelinek, fired a teacher whom she held responsible for pornography found on the school computer’s server. The teacher was supported by the community’s former leadership, particularly Jiri Danicek, a former community chairman, and Leo Pavlat, a board member and director of the Prague Jewish Museum.

Seventeen teachers resigned from the school and one-third of its pupils left as well. Since last month’s elections, the new community leaders have created an independent supervisory board to search for a new principal and reinvigorate the school.

An even more controversial step was Jelinek’s firing last year of Prague’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, a former anti-communist dissident and a pillar of post-communist Jewish life in the Czech Republic. Jelinek said Sidon had mismanaged religious objects, but a personality clash and struggle for control also appeared to be involved.

Jelinek argued in the Czech press that before he took over, the community had been stifled by a lack of financial transparency, rigid orthodoxy and nepotism. He also criticized the Jewish Museum for keeping some $5 million in reserve that Jelinek felt could have been used to help the elderly.

Jelinek’s political tactics earned him the ire of community members like Jakub Roth, a founder of the Community for All platform and the new board’s vice president.

“It’s time to disband the platform, put aside differences and work on communication that was so problematic in the past,” Roth said. “I hope Mr. Jelinek will be a constructive, not a destructive, critic.”

Jelinek said the new leaders want to brush reform under the carpet. Roth, however, said the new leadership should be given time to prove itself, and his goals for the community aren’t so different from Jelinek’s.

There now are two facilities for the aged in temporary quarters, housing some 65 people. With more than half of the community over age 60, Roth said elder care is something the new board takes seriously.

Roth said the community will make “more of an effort than ever before” to find out how it can best service non-Orthodox congregations. Along with Bejt Simcha, there’s Bejt Praha — which describes itself as an “open” congregation and is particularly popular with foreigners — and a Conservative movement.

“We need to sit down and find out what it is they need, whether it’s a place to worship or some other type of support,” Roth said.

Roth, who holds a degree from MIT and speaks fluent English, admitted that the community has had a reputation for being closed to outsiders.

“I’ve heard that tourists and foreigners living in Prague don’t know how to get information about services, about community activities, about kosher food,” he said. “That’s going to change, I promise.”

Roth is working to put more English information on the community’s Web site, as well as English-language fliers on synagogues and community headquarters. He joked that sometimes the bodyguards posted at community facilities look like dance-club bouncers, which can discourage visitors.

Roth acknowledged that the policy of granting full membership in the community only to halachic Jews had upset some people, but said the community wanted to reach out to those with any kind of Jewish ancestry.

“We provide social care services to all Holocaust survivors whose persecution was based on their Jewish heritage,” he said.

Roth, who is a financial expert with a leading Czech bank, also promised to professionalize community operations, saying good governance would be a cornerstone of policy. That might mean breaking with past practices that he implied encouraged nepotism and inefficiency.

“The community is here to help its members. The best way someone can be helped is to give him work,” he said, noting that the official community employs 150 people. “On the other hand, this has the drawback of potentially not filling the position with the best candidate.”

Roth added that battles between individuals in the community could have a silver lining.

“The Prague Jewish community managed to resolve its differences in a democratic election, which is something of which we can all be proud,” he said. “Many people who didn’t care about the community came forth and asked to be listed as members. People participated in public matters with resolve unseen before. This has invigorated the community, and we have a strong mandate to do things right this time.”

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