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Around the Jewish World Communal Split Grows in Prague As Platform Blasts New Leadership

August 24, 2004
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Jewish leaders in Prague are facing a rebellion from sections of the official community only months after the leadership was elected on a pledge to create a more transparent and democratic community. About 40 members of the 1,600-strong community have joined a new platform called “A Community for All,” which claims the leadership has adopted undemocratic methods by forcing through policies without public discussion.

The platform was formed recently following a series of upheavals in the community, including the removal of Prague’s Orthodox rabbi from his post as the city’s chief rabbi and the resignation of 17 teachers at Prague’s only Jewish school in a long-running dispute over how the school should be managed.

The current leadership swept to power in April after a coalition, headed by community chairman Tomas Jelinek, won elections to the community’s parliament, its highest representative body.

The “Community for All” plat! form claims to represent a “broad representative spectrum” of groups in the community, including several Holocaust victims, university students and parents of children attending the Lauder Jewish school in Prague.

The platform, which claims the community is in crisis, has threatened to push for early community elections if the leadership does not change course and open debate.

Some members of the platform accuse Jelinek of fueling recent crises in the community with an allegedly uncompromising leadership style. Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, said last week that while members of the community broadly shared the same goals, Jelinek’s style is based on “offensive confrontation.”

Platform spokesman Jakub Roth told JTA that the group found methods used by the leadership “unbefitting the leadership of any Jewish community. The current leadership decide something in secret sessions and then push that decision through parliament,” he said.

“The m! embers of the community are not even informed about what is going on. They have no say,” he continued. “If you employ dictatorial methods, it damages the community’s fundamental democratic principles. Democracy means that issues are debated.”

Roth said the platform would seek to inform the community of issues that it claims are not being handled democratically.

“If necessary we will follow through and call for early elections,” he added.

Jelinek denied that the leadership was in any sense dictatorial.

“It’s like Venezuela here, because those who did not win don’t want to follow the election results,” he commented, referring to the recent referendum forced on Hugo Chavez to confirm his presidency.

“I was elected by the vast majority of the community’s 1,600 members on the program I proposed of an open and democratic community,” he said.

“There is a small group of people — the same group who have been against me for years — who are pressing for early elections. This group really don’t like the fact that the community is! going in the direction of attracting new members from Czech Jewry as well as foreign Jews,” he added.

April’s elections were held against a background of strife at the Lauder school, which was hit by a scandal last year after pornography was found on the school’s Internet server.

Seventeen teachers resigned earlier this summer following the resignation of the school’s principal under pressure from the community leadership, which said she had made mistakes. Some parents also threatened to remove their children from the school.

Jelinek said this week that replacements for the teachers had been found and that no parents had yet pulled their children from the school. He added that he was hopeful the school could put its recent controversial past behind it and function normally.

Senior community members also are seeking clarification over a recent ambiguous ruling from a rabbinical court in Israel on the removal of Karel Sidony as the city’s chief rabbi. Sidony ! remains chief rabbi of the Czech Republic.

The court left the post of Prague chief rabbi vacant, arguing that the decision of the community leadership must be respected.

However, it also ruled that Sidony should become “president” of all Prague and Czech rabbis.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Menachem Kachlheim from Israel has been appointed temporary rabbi of the Old-New Synagogue. An American Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, Manis Barash, who has worked in Prague for the past eight years, may take over the function next year if he learns Czech.

Sidony declined to be interviewed on the issue, while Barash did not return telephone calls.

“The rabbinical court ruled that we have to work together here in peace and work for the benefit of the community. That is what I am doing,” Jelinek said.

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