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Around the Jewish World in Shake-up, Jewish Community Forces out Chief Rabbi of Prague

July 2, 2004
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Prague Jewish community representatives have dismissed their chief rabbi after concluding that the former Communist dissident and playwright was not carrying out his duties satisfactorily. The controversial decision to remove Rabbi Karol Sidon, 61, was taken at a meeting Monday of the community’s highest representative body. It followed a recommendation made by the community’s representative board.

Sidon reacted angrily to the move. He will remain chief rabbi of the Czech Republic after securing the support of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities.

Prague community chairman Tomas Jelinek told JTA that community representatives had reached the conclusion that Sidon, who is Orthodox, was not able to fulfill the responsibilities of his position as Prague’s chief rabbi.

“I don’t want to comment on all the reasons for the dismissal because it is an internal issue, but I can say that his failure to run the office successfu! lly was limiting the future development of the Prague Jewish community,” Jelinek said.

Jelinek said he had stated before recent community elections that the city’s rabbinate needed to be overhauled.

“Rabbi Sidon has not been able to do his job as a chief rabbi properly, and he failed in all important aspects of what his office is expected to do,” Jelinek said. “There was criticism from the left and the right. He was running the rabbinate in such a way that it would never have religious authority.”

But Sidon said he was convinced that his dismissal was politically motivated following the recent electoral success of a coalition, headed by Jelinek, that swept into power in the Jewish community on a ticket of a more open and democratic community.

“Basically, I think this is about eliminating the chief rabbi and his post from a religious point of view and creating a situation where there is no rabbi and where only the community chairman has executive power,” Sidon ! said. “I am convinced that my dismissal is about people grabbing power , and my role and my competence was standing in their way.”

Some community representatives expressed concerns at the manner in which Sidon was removed from office. Jakub Roth, a member of the community’s highest representative body, said he felt the question of Sidon’s tenure could have been handled in a more private and sensitive manner.

“The problem for me was not the substance of Rabbi Sidon’s dismissal, but the process,” Roth said. “What I felt was completely unnecessary was the public humiliation that took place for what was a minor work issue.”

Sidon, whose Jewish father died in the Holocaust, converted to Judaism 25 years ago shortly after becoming a leading dissident in the former Communist regime. He also became a famous figure in Czech society for writing plays such as “God’s Barb” and “Abraham’s Return.”

The Communist authorities forced Sidon out of the country in 1983, and he returned in 1990 after the regime fell. He was appointed Czech chief rab! bi in 1992.

Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, said the federation agreed this week to keep Sidon on as the country’s chief rabbi because he was widely seen as a moral authority.

“Rabbi Sidon is a symbol for us, as he was when we offered him the job of chief rabbi 10 years ago,” Kraus said. “He was somebody who represented the Holocaust because he was born in 1942 and his father died in a concentration camp. He remains a moral authority with the Czech public.”

Kraus added, however, that perceptions about Sidon were not the same within the community as outside it. “Rabbi Sidon’s wider role in Czech society is different from that in the community. There is a difference between having someone who is a moral authority and someone who is seen every day in the community as a clerk doing day-to-day organization,” he said.

Several Orthodox rabbis currently working in Prague will share the responsibilities of the rabbinate! until a replacement is found. Jelinek said there were no plans in the short term to replace Sidon.

“I expect that three rabbis will serve the community until a young man who is studying to be an Orthodox rabbi in Israel returns within the next two years. The three rabbis who are here will be able to compete for the post of chief rabbi when the time comes,” he said.

Sidon’s future may lie in Slovakia. Sidon confirmed this week that representatives of Bratislava’s Jewish community had approached him recently regarding a possible move there.

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