PRAGUE (Jan. 29)
The ambitious leaders of the tiny Jewish community in the Czech town of Teplice sat around the table with government officials earlier this month, toasting the country’s first government-assisted investment deal with Israel. Tivall, a member of Israel’s Osem Group, has agreed to set up a $30 million factory in the Teplice area, its only production plant in Europe, which will make its trademark vegetarian products such as pasta and soya.
The factory, the first such Israeli venture attracted by the Czech government’s investment incentive program, will create 550 jobs over several years.
The commercial success was celebrated in a lush and leafy suburb lined with luxurious villas at the Jewish community headquarters — the only Jewish building in Teplice not destroyed by the Nazis — which reopened in 2004 following a major restoration.
But some wondered if the Jewish community should play host to an investment deal. After all, what will the neighbors say?
“In the region of Usti where we are right now, unemployment is the worst in the country, more than 20 percent. Anyone having even a remote connection with decreasing that number will only be viewed in a positive light,” Michael Lichtenstein, vice president of the Teplice Jewish Community, said during a break from schmoozing with regional authorities. “Worries about Jewish stereotypes and business? Wrong country.”
The Jewish community headquarters is a thriving enterprise, housing the only cafÃ© in a residential district as well as a shop selling souvenirs and kosher goodies.
In 1937, Teplice had 6,500 Jews — making it the second-largest Jewish community in what was then Czechoslovakia — and one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Now there are only 124 Jews in the town, three-quarters of them age 65 and older.
Local Jewish leaders hope Israeli business will foster Jewish growth in Teplice.
“Can you imagine how great it would be with these Israelis coming here for business and, suddenly, there will be more Jews here?” community president Oldrich Latal asked. “They can serve as such an encouragement for our members, and for those who have Jewish heritage but have not yet decided to participate in Jewish life.”
As elsewhere in the former Eastern Bloc, where those who survived the Holocaust then had to contend with anti-religious regimes, many Czechs with Jewish ancestry have not reconnected with their faith.
But Latal’s high-octane approach, including school seminars on Teplice’s Jewish history, the reconstruction of a Jewish community center in the nearby city of Most and the establishment of a community subsidiary to attract investment to the region, has raised the profile of the Teplice community.
“Before our last Chanukah celebration, we put the word out that people should come who were simply interested in the subject, and we ended up getting six people there with real Jewish roots who we had never seen before,” he said.
Latal also seeks to get people outside the Czech Republic, but who have links to Teplice, more involved with the community.
“Many people wish to be buried here. It would be nice if they came to the Jewish center in Teplice before they died,” he said, half joking.
Latal’s newest scheme is to attract Israelis to Teplice’s Baroque-style spa facilities, which once hosted luminaries such as Mozart and Goethe.
Meanwhile, for Arie Arazi, who became Israel’s ambassador to the Czech Republic three months ago, the food factory is the beginning of an economic partnership that he believes has a chance for exponential growth.
Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek was due to sign a joint research and development agreement with Israel last month, but it was put on hold after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Jan. 4 stroke.
Arazi said a similar treaty he pioneered while serving as Israeli ambassador to Korea in the late 1990s — under which Korea and Israel loaned entrepreneurs start-up costs, to be paid back with their revenues — resulted in 30 new joint ventures.
Arazi points out the special appeal of the Czechs’ relatively low-cost, high-skilled labor pool, and its strategic location for those who want to keep down production costs while having good access to Western Europe.
Just as the Israelis are the high-tech mavericks of the Middle East, the Czechs are the leading software developers in their region, with more graduates from technical universities per capita than any other country in Europe.
Then there is the Czech government’s attitude toward Israel, which Arazi assessed as “better than anywhere else in Europe.”
He added that he was impressed by the pride the Czech Republic takes in its Jewish history. Citing the Jewish Museum of Prague’s centenary celebration this year, which will result in cultural events across the country, he said, “this is a government-supported event on every level. That’s quite unusual.”
It’s also a nice change for Arazi, who recalls that when he worked at the Israeli Embassy in Japan in the mid-1990s, a survey revealed that 98 percent of the Japanese had never heard of Jerusalem.