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Around the Jewish World Festering Rivalry in Prague Bursts into Open with Violence on Shabbat

April 15, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A long-simmering dispute in the Prague Jewish community over the leadership of one of the city’s most prestigious synagogues has resulted in a violent altercation and the shul’s temporary closure. The rabbi of the famed Old-New Synagogue, Manis Barash, was conducting Shabbat services Saturday when the synagogue’s gabbai offered an aliyah to Karol Sidon, chief rabbi for the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities.

According to observers, Barash was not pleased, and made that displeasure known. He pointed out that he, not Sidon, who had been fired as chief rabbi of Prague last summer, should be reading from the Torah, said the gabbai, Jakub Svab.

Soon the confrontation erupted into violence, leaving several people injured, and at least one is considering pressing charges.

The background to the incident was laid last summer. The Prague community erupted in a furor when then-chairman Tomas Jelinek fired Sidon, claiming the rabbi was not performing his duties properly and had misplaced ceremonial objects.

But Jelinek admitted that the larger problem was an interpersonal conflict over the direction of the community. Sidon is Orthodox and Jelinek is secular. Jelinek wanted to open the community to more foreign and liberal elements, and claims Sidon was too closed to such ideas.

Sidon claimed that Jelinek wanted unfettered power.

When Jelinek dismissed Sidon he installed Barash, the former head of Prague’s Chabad House, who is not fluent in Czech, as the Old-New Synagogue’s chief rabbi.

The move was highly controversial, because Sidon’s congregation had been worshiping at the shul with him since at least the mid 1990s, and Chabad wasn’t part of the official Czech Jewish community.

Sidon moved his congregation to the more contemporary High Synagogue.

On Saturday, however, the 30 or so worshipers who usually go to services at the High Synagogue turned up at the Old-New Synagogue. Sidon was with them.

It seemed like an attempt to “take the synagogue back in some way. It was like the army had marched in,” said Rafael Ohana, an Israeli tour guide who has lived in Prague for five years and regularly attends Barash’s services.

The dispute turned heated when Barash refused to allow Sidon to have an aliyah. Sidon told the congregation that they should move to the High Synagogue. Most of them left, witnesses say.

Shortly after, violence broke out in the Old-New Synagogue’s entrance hall. A news release issued by the Prague Jewish community, many of whose members opposed Sidon’s firing last summer, reported that six Barash supporters beat up two young members of Sidon’s congregation.

The alleged victims “ended up seriously wounded, one of them tugged by his legs on the floor after being beaten in the head, which resulted in a concussion,” according to the release.

But Ohana had a different version of events.

Barash’s wife “wanted to come inside the synagogue. There was a Czech woman, a Sidon supporter, who told the guards, ‘Don’t let this lady in, she does not belong here,’ ” Ohana said.

Upon hearing that, Ohana said, a Czech-Israeli woman, Tfila Yerucham, the 19-year-old sister of the synagogue’s cantor, responded, “Anyone is welcome here. What you are saying now is what the Nazis told my grandmother.”

The Czech woman then told her boyfriend that Yerucham had called her a Nazi, Ohana continued.

The boyfriend then “hit Tfila in the face a few times and she fell to the floor,” Ohana said. “He beat and kicked her.”

Ohana’s version of events was reinforced by Yerucham’s father, who says the fight was laced with political undertones about control of the synagogue. Several Chabad House regulars entered the fight.

“Everybody was fighting everybody. There might have been 20 people going at each other,” said Ohana, who said most of the fighters on the Chabad side were Israelis, not locals.

“I am sorry for all of this,” said Ohana, “but the ones who got hurt were on the side that started it.”

Martin Hrehorcak, the “boyfriend” Ohana was referring to, said his girlfriend never told guards not to admit Barash’s wife, but said Yerucham insulted his girlfriend after she said Sidon was her rabbi.

“It’s true that I pushed and slapped the Israeli girl after she called my girlfriend a Nazi pig,” he admitted. “But I did this to wake her up, not to hurt her. She has a history of getting hysterical and when I was talking to her she wasn’t answering, I thought she was going to have a fit, so I did what psychiatrists recommend.”

Hrehorcak said Ohana and other Chabad supporters didn’t witness the event, but attacked him and others when they heard Yerucham scream. He said he plans to press charges.

“All of a sudden all of these Chabad guys were attacking me and they injured my spine,” he said. “It wasn’t about the girl only; this was about the conflict with Chabad and the synagogue.”

Several attempts to reach Barash by phone were unsuccessful.

Much has happened in the community since the contretemps with Sidon last year. Jelinek was ousted as chairman last November in a community vote that was attended mostly by Sidon supporters. He has challenged the vote, and a new community election is expected to take place next month.

Two months ago, in response to an earlier request by Jelinek, a rabbinical judge in Israel issued a ruling recognizing Barash as the official rabbi of the Old-New Synagogue.

Svab, the gabbai, said Barash must have been surprised to see Sidon’s supporters enter the shul on Saturday.

“As far as I know, the only people who attended his services were Israelis and tourists,” he said of Barash.

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