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Around the Jewish World Conservative Rabbi in Prague Brings Movement to Czech Republic

May 26, 2005
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A twenty-something man in Prague tells the rabbi that his mother, who had been a Communist, has just told him that her mother was Jewish. “So what does that make me?” the confused and curious Czech wants to know. “If I decide to be Jewish, does that mean people will hate me?”

Rabbi Ron Hoffberg hears that type of question often.

Hoffberg, 57, former head of the Rabbinical Assembly Conversion Institute of Northern New Jersey, came to Prague right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and started the Conservative (Masorti) movement in Prague.

His own “conversion,” which transformed him from a visiting rabbi who became embroiled in a legal dispute with his hosts to a teacher in the Czech Republic’s struggling Jewish communities, reflects the culture shock that some American Jews face in adjusting to the pressures and divisions of Jewish life in the former Eastern bloc.

Hoffberg initially led the congregation at Bejt Praha, a nondenominational liberal congregation in Prague particularly popular with expatriates and foreign visitors.

However, a dispute over his contract and working conditions led Hoffberg to leave the shul after less than a year. But working closely with young people hungry for the message of Conservative Judaism had given him a feeling of responsibility so he decided to stay in the country, he said.

The sometimes closed nature of a society still emerging from more than four decades of communism did not make Hoffberg’s outreach efforts easy.

Though he sometimes sounds pessimistic about the community, Hoffberg’s devotion to people who have had few spiritual choices over the past half century is clear.

“Out of about 12 rabbis from abroad who came and went at Bejt Praha, I am the only one who decided to stay in Prague long-term,” he said. “I saw I could make a difference to those who wanted to know more about Conservative Judaism.”

For the past two-plus years, Hoffberg has been holding weekly services at the headquarters of the Prague Jewish community. Anywhere from 20 to 40 people show up regularly. He is the only Conservative rabbi in the country, he says.

Hoffberg also runs weekly conversion classes. Many of his students have Jewish roots but don’t know anything about their heritage. Hoffberg has overseen 40 conversions since he came to Prague.

“I discover people all the time who think they might have some Jewish roots and want to make their way to the community, but they just don’t know how,” Hoffberg said.

Reaching across the intra-religious divide — rivalries in the Prague Jewish community have become so intense that even the city’s non-Jews have heard about them — Hoffberg’s congregation celebrated Purim this year with members of Reform and Orthodox congregations.

“I think we attracted some people who were turned off by the fighting that goes on over who controls what synagogue,” Hoffberg said. “It bothers me that people are so intense about it all here, so angry at each other. I don’t take sides, but I think the goal should be an open community that welcomes all Jews.”

Hoffberg is also the official rabbi for Decin and Pilsen, two of the Czech Republic’s 10 Jewish communities. He recently held Shabbat services in Pilsen’s Great Synagogue, believed to be the world’s third-largest shul and now primarily a venue for concerts and cultural events since most of the area’s Jews perished during the Holocaust.

They were the first Shabbat services there in more than a decade, and about 40 people turned out. Hoffberg said that was a fairly good showing for a community just starting to return to Judaism.

With Hoffberg’s support, Decin soon will borrow a Torah scroll from another Czech city, Ostrava. It will be the first Torah in Decin, which has only about 120 Jews, since World War II.

Michal Spevak, vice president of Decin’s Jewish community, said a small group had been trying to revive the community’s religious life for years. Until Hoffberg began visiting, the effort had been unsuccessful.

“Hoffberg attracts people not just because of his explanations of Jewish life, but also because of his sense of humor and style of narration, which makes his lectures more engaging,” Spevak said.

The arrival of the Torah, along with some restoration work on the synagogue, may usher in a period of growth for the community, Spevak said.

In Decin and Pilsen, Hoffberg said, his first task “was to help identify who is Jewish and who might need conversion — that is, people who think they might be Jewish but whose mothers were in fact not Jewish.”

During World War II, thousands of Jews destroyed documents that would have proven their religious identity in order to avoid being sent to concentration camps. Jews also were persecuted under Communism, so it was not in people’s best interests to restore their links to the religion during that era.

Hoffberg told the story of a young man who converted to Judaism. Then someone in his family happened to open a drawer and found documents proving that he was already Jewish.

“They had simply forgotten all about their own history,” Hoffberg said. “It’s really a constant process of discovery in this country.”

Hoffberg said the Czech Republic has a high number of atheists, among the most in Europe. That general attitude toward religion doesn’t make his job any easier, he said.

“One of the first things someone pondering the Jewish faith in the Czech Republic wants to know is whether or not he has to be religious,” Hoffberg said. “They are afraid that being a Jew means wearing a black hat and curls.”

He says he gets questions all the time from people born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, who want to know why they can’t just be considered Jewish.

“So I tell them, ‘I’m not going to say you’re not Jewish. Maybe you know all about what it means to be Jewish,’ ” he said. “But it’s like driving a car. You can have 20 years of driving experience but you can’t legally drive on the road unless you take the test and get your driver’s license, right? “

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