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Around the Jewish World in Slovakia, Rabbi and Community Work Together, Despite Uneasiness

August 15, 2005
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Rabbi Baruch Myers is not shy about the businesslike approach that he hopes will bring a religious renaissance to the tiny Bratislava Jewish community. “P.R., P.R., P.R., that is what it’s all about,” Myers says from his modern office in the Slovak capital. Books with titles such as “Fundraising for Dummies” and “Managing the Non-Profit Organization” line his bookshelf.

Myers, Bratislava’s only rabbi, is from Chabad, a fervently Orthodox international group based in the United States that occasionally is at odds with the mostly secular Slovak Jewish local community. But Myers’ relationship with the community is generally amicable — in part out of necessity.

“He is our only rabbi; we cannot forget that,” says Peter Salner, the chairman of the 600-member Bratislava Jewish community.

The minyan that Myers runs four days a week may only draw a dozen worshippers, but the community was without a rabbi for 25 years, so it’s understandable that people aren’t yet comfortable going to synagogue, he says.

Myers and Salner have been making efforts to build bridges between Chabad and the community.

For instance, Salner says Myers has been helpful in trying to resolve an ongoing conflict over whether urns containing the ashes of cremated Jews can be buried in the Jewish cemetery.

Myers supported a compromise that would permit the urns to be placed in a special place of honor just on the edge of the cemetery. The community board rejected the proposal and remains fiercely divided on the issue. A few months ago the board took the unusual step of asking Myers to attend its meetings.

“That’s a great sign,” he says.

Myers is unusual in Chabad circles because he has a secular education: He’s a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he studied music composition.

Perhaps it’s his wide experience with the secular world — he was raised secular, he says — and the fact that he now speaks fluent Slovak that has enabled him to work on developing positive relations with members of the Jewish community and remain their only rabbi for more than a decade.

“As an American Jew, you have to put on European glasses if you are going to succeed here,” he says. At the Chabad House in Bratislava one day in July, children jump up and down, singing loudly.

“Thumbs up, thumbs up,” goes one chant, followed by the more religious fare you would expect to hear at a Jewish camp anywhere.

But this is not anywhere: Only a decade ago, dressing as a fervently Orthodox Jew in Bratislava might have elicited a skinhead attack.

Myers himself was assaulted in the early 1990s. But times have changed, said his wife, Chanie, Chabad’s local director of education and a mother of 10.

“People see we are not being shot at sunrise, so they are not afraid to send their kids to our summer camp,” she says.

Chabad’s modern facilities might be part of the appeal, since they look better than most day-care establishments in this former eastern bloc country.

This year Camp Gan Israel, a three-week day camp, has 50 kids, twice as many as last year — or almost 10 percent of the city’s Jewish population, as Chanie Myers puts it.

“That’s as if a camp in upstate New York had 45,000 kids,” she says proudly.

The camp was the Myers’ brainchild after they arrived in Bratislava 12 years ago and started a summer day program for Jewish kids in one of the city’s parks, with trips to the public swimming pool.

Kids who attend get all the benefits of a typical summer camp — cultural activities, day trips, lots of exercise and singing — plus lessons in Hebrew and religious instruction. Counselors are mostly fervently Orthodox teenage girls from the United States, 16-year-olds in long skirts and long sleeves with pronounced New York accents. Exposure to English, not always easy to find in Bratislava, is another plus at the camp.

But as Chabad draws more interest among those with Jewish heritage, the potential for conflicts with the official community grows.

The camp expanded this summer to include a section for teens, but few of the campers’ parents are members of the official Jewish community.

“They have parents who were raised as Christians or didn’t even know they were Jewish, but they are all halachic Jews,” Chanie Myers says.

Those who don’t meet the halachic criteria of Jewishness — having a Jewish mother — are excluded. That irks some in the community, who complain that nonhalachic Jews who identify Jewishly aren’t allowed to attend the camp, while some campers are halachically Jewish but have little interest in Jewish identity.

Rabbi Myers admits that one camper has a mother who goes to church and perhaps four others come from homes where at least one parent might at one time have practiced Christianity.

But he says that all of the children in the camp are there because their parents want them to learn about Judaism and Jewish traditions.

“I have kids who start telling their parents about the commandments, and eventually the parents become so interested that they, too, want to observe Jewish holidays,” he says.

Salner attributes the popularity of Chabad’s camp and kindergarten, which has been operating for a decade, not to a growing interest in a Jewish identity but to Chabad’s financial resources, which have made the camp and school superior to other local, non-Jewish offerings.

After two years of working with the Slovak Education Ministry, Chabad is set to open a Jewish school for grades one through four next year. So far the school has five students ready to sign up.

Other conflicts have more to do with style than substance. Two years ago, Myers and his wife organized the first public celebration of Judaism in Slovakia since World War II, a Lag B’Omer parade from the Chabad Center to the presidential palace.

“There was terror in the Jewish community that something would happen. We had Jews calling telling us please don’t do this, but I sent my son on the float with a kipah under a clown wig, and it went fine,” Chanie Myers says.

Salner smiles sardonically when asked about the parade.

Chabad “makes it seems like a big success, but I notice they didn’t do it again this year,” he says. “Their concept of Judaism and their presentation is different than what we are comfortable with.”

The parade was the biggest conflict so far between Chabad and the Bratislava Jewish community, according to Salner.

“The older people were especially upset since the parade route was the same as the route Jews were taken on for transports to concentration camps,” he says.

Chanie Myers says that by promoting public celebrations of Jewish holidays, she wants the community to realize that it doesn’t have to be afraid of being Jewish.

“I understand intellectually that after everything people here went through, they are hesitant to be openly Jewish, but there is no reason for them to give their kids a complex about it,” she says. “I go on the street with our kids with kipahs and every once in a while, someone will say, ‘Look a Jew,’ and my boys, they say, ‘Yes, that’s right.’ “

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