New leader of Czech Jews faces difficult job


PRAGUE, July 2 (JTA) — He’s young, smart and ready to change the face of Czech Jewry.

Thirty-two-year-old Tomas Jelinek, who was recently elected chairman of the Prague Jewish Community — the most powerful Jewish post in the Czech Republic — is aiming to put an end to infighting and reach out to the wider Czech society.

He knows how difficult the job is going to be.

“You know, there are people in the Jewish community here who hate me simply because I was elected,” he says with a wry smile.

It’s no joke. According to insiders, infighting has become almost a way of life in the 1,600-strong community, which makes up half of the country’s official Jewish population under the auspices of the umbrella group, the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities.

Tensions between leaders of the federation and some of the largely non-Orthodox membership across the country had been escalating in the months before Jelinek’s appointment.

Many rank-and-file members in Prague and in the country’s nine other communities were becoming increasingly unhappy about the fact that their communities do not officially recognize liberal streams of Judaism. They openly called for change.

And change they got. Jelinek, a confidant of President Vaclav Havel and an economic adviser in the presidential office, was swept into the chair in Prague last month on a populist tide of support.

It was an endorsement of his campaign platform, which among other things called for unity within a pluralistic community.

Jelinek, a former vice chairman of the Prague community, was well aware that he was addressing the concerns of a large majority of Prague’s Jewish population.

In an opinion poll late last year, 75 percent of respondents called for the official community to open itself up to other branches of Judaism. The federation recently stated that it intends to allow liberal branches to operate within the community by the end of the year.

Czech Jews before World War II “were not very Orthodox and quite assimilated,” he says. “The second point is that most of the Jews in the Czech Republic are secular. They view the liberal ways of Judaism as less strict, easier to understand and more user-friendly.”

Jelinek discovered just how tough it was to get his message across to some of the old guard.

“Two days before the election, I asked a senior member of the community if he would support me. He told me that that was a difficult question because the chair was usually someone who had experienced the Holocaust or was ‘a pious Jew,’ ” he says.

Jelinek represents the Czech Republic on the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims and is chairman of the board of the Czech Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims.

He not only wants to foster Jewish unity, but would like to see the community reach out to Czech society as a whole to avoid being marginalized. He has already issued a public appeal to the Czechs, asking them to condemn neo-Nazism, which has plagued the country since the fall of communism.

“It is so important that we have the support of the public here because activities like neo-Nazism must not be accepted,” he says. “I want the Prague Jewish Community to be very much a part of the wider society, and I intend to let people know we are here.”

Although Jelinek stresses the need to reach outside the community, he says he hasn’t forgotten the importance of taking care of members.

Having grown up under a Communist regime that discouraged all forms of religion, Jelinek says he became actively involved in Jewish life as soon as the Iron Curtain was lifted 12 years ago. He first joined the Czechoslovak Union of Jewish Students and later become a member of the Prague Jewish Community.

In 1998, he and a friend, David Stecher, who was recently elected chairman of the Prague community’s supervisory board, decided to “revive” the Jewish community here. They started their mission by staging the first Jewish Ball held in Prague in 60 years.

“I felt more needed to be done to make the community a welcoming place,” Jelinek says.

“I would like to see the community have a more friendly, open and human face. There have been complaints that people who call in to the community for advice or help have been spoken to rudely by staff who don’t even introduce themselves. It is so important for the community to be seen to be open and friendly.”

In that quest, Jelinek has the support of Stecher, whose five-member elected supervisory board is responsible for handling complaints.

Jelinek also aims to make the community more attractive to middle-aged Jews who he believes have been neglected over the years.

“We cater for the young with a school here and provide support for the elderly, but there is nothing here for people between 35 and 55 years old,” he says. “If we are able to activate them through social programs, we will be able to create a more vital community.”

He estimates that there are hundreds of middle-aged Jews who have not participated in Jewish activities because there is little or nothing for them. He hopes that by the end of his three-year term, he will have succeeded in enticing some of them to join the community.

While Jelinek and his colleagues work on improving the community’s image, other changes are planned. The new chairman intends to ensure that the community makes the most of its assets, which include prime real estate in Prague and elsewhere in the country.

“I have the feeling that the Prague Jewish Community is the only Jewish community in the Czech Republic which has the potential to become self-sustainable financially,” he says.

Jelinek may have set some tough goals, but he can expect support from a wide range of people. Even Karol Sidon, the Czech Republic’s normally reserved chief rabbi, indicated that the young chairman has a bright future.

And Jelinek may find a helping hand in Havel, though he says he won’t use his position to try to influence a man widely regarded by the Jewish community and beyond as the country’s moral guardian.

“I am strictly separating my agenda with the president, which covers mainly economic issues, from my position as chairman,” he says. “But for sure if there would be some serious issue affecting the Jewish community in the Czech Republic, it would feel natural to inform him about it.”

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