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Around the Jewish World It’s Official: Prague Rebels Oust Community Chairman and His Board

January 21, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The rebels have won — for now. The Czech Federation of Jewish Communities has officially recognized the victory of the Platform, a group of some 200 to 300 members of the Prague Jewish community that sought to oust community chairman Tomas Jelinek and his vice chairpersons.

Earlier this month, a district court issued an order allowing the Platform to occupy the community headquarters in the heart of Prague’s Jewish quarter.

Jelinek is appealing the injunction and has no plans to quit the premises, though the Platform already controls the community’s bank accounts, cell phones and computers.

Roth said an interim board chosen by Platform supporters will run the community until early elections in April produce a new 24-member community board.

Jelinek told JTA he plans to run in the April elections. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic’s Culture Ministry has registered the Platform’s Frantisek Banyai as the community’s official leader.

The Platform’s many complaints against Jelinek’s leadership were aired vociferously just after Jelinek and his allies — mostly middle-aged, secular professionals — were elected last April. Jelinek’s team ousted a tight group of representatives that had run the community since the early 1990s and whose careers were tightly tied to its holdings.

The Platform complained that Jelinek was too aggressive, political and secular. He fired the city’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, against their wishes, dismissed the principal of the Lauder Jewish School, whom they endorsed, and hired a public relations agency that gained access to community members’ contact information without their knowledge.

Jelinek countered that his critics couldn’t get used to being out of power and wanted to control the community’s vast financial holdings, spending more on architectural projects than on needy Holocaust survivors.

Then it got ugly.

The Platform mobilized in November and held an official vote to oust Jelinek during a raucous community assembly that Jelinek supporters stalked out of.

That meeting was followed by a reconfirmation vote in early December, as prescribed by community bylaws. Jelinek and his supporters refused to participate in the second vote, claiming that the shouting and name-calling at the initial meeting made such gatherings unacceptable.

In fact, the initial November meeting was characterized by behavior that has become legendary in Prague, even outside the community.

Many attendees say Platform supporters whistled and yelled when elderly members tried to speak in Jelinek’s favor, even telling one speaker that she should have stayed in Terezin, where the Nazis held Jews before shipping them off to death camps.

The country’s Federation of Jewish Communities ignored a December write-in vote that Jelinek authorized — and where he received the endorsement of the vast majority of participants — because community regulations don’t sanction absentee ballots in case of a recall, federation chairman Tomas Kraus said.

The consequences of the “putsch,” as many have called it, will be felt for years to come, Kraus said.

“All these acts and counteracts by both sides are so terrible, as if it is not the Jewish community at stake but general politics,” he said.

Anger and frustration are still bubbling over in the community. The community is divided mostly among Holocaust survivors — who make up slightly more than half of the community — and people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are converts.

Elderly members are troubled by the direction of the community, fearing that after Jelinek’s exit their welfare will be less of a priority.

In contrast to his predecessors, Jelinek pushed hard for the creation of Hagibor, a state-of-the-art, 68-bed home for the elderly. The community now has an older, 19-bed facility.

The Hagibor project has been discussed in the community since 1996, but now it’s on hold again. One key American donor to the $8.6 million project reportedly has put her $100,000 contribution on hold until the community infighting is resolved.

Platform members, led from behind the scenes by former community chairman Jiri Danicek, Sidon and Jewish Museum Chairman Leo Pavlat, have indicated that the Hagibor project as envisioned by Jelinek is too costly and not well planned.

“There should have been a feasibility study, and all Jelinek showed the community was one page with a bunch of numbers that made no sense,” said Roth, the Platform spokesman who insisted the group was committed to Hagibor. “There was a lack of transparency and people got nervous at the prospect of all that money flowing through Jelinek’s hands.”

Jelinek rejects those claims.

“It seems they care more about renovating tombstones than about Holocaust survivors,” he has said on many occasions, a jibe at the well-funded Jewish Museum.

There now are 30 elderly community members who receive home care from the community.

With the average pension in the Czech Republic just $304 per month and the cost of living rising exponentially since the end of the Communist era, the insecurity of the elderly is easily understood — especially because the government faces pressure to reduce social spending.

“Before Mr. Jelinek became chairman, there was a social-care section within the Prague Jewish community that offered help to the elderly and ill but with very limited funds,” said Eva Benesova, 64, a “hidden child” during World War II. “Mr. Jelinek showed a lot of human feeling when he pushed for the Hagibor project.”

Jana Draska, 75, also a hidden child during the war, said care for the elderly had improved under Jelinek. She also bemoaned the current atmosphere in the community, noting that at the infamous November assembly she heard one younger member say, “There will be nothing left for us if they give all the money to the elderly.”

“After the war and communism, during which there were political murders of Jews and we were thrown out of universities, we would never have expected the attacks to now come from within the community,” Draska said.

Ludovit Vegh, 84, noted that the community’s wealth came mostly from property of Holocaust victims that the government returned to the community after the fall of communism.

“The property should most of all serve those who survived the Holocaust and provide a home for the elderly,” he said.

Vegh, who survived many slave labor camps, characterized the rift in the community as a fight over the assets of the murdered.

“If not for Hitler, there would not be a Prague Jewish war as we see it today, no great conflict over large amounts of property among a small group of members,” he said.

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