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Around the Jewish World Orthodox Rabbi in Czech Republic Winning over Town’s Secular Jews

February 14, 2005
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Like many rabbis all over the world, Moshe Chaim Koler likes to tell jokes with not-so-hidden messages. Asked about how he, as an Orthodox rabbi who is a convert to Judaism, fares in a mostly agnostic community, he answered with a joke.

“There’s this guy in Israel who just bought a Ferrari and he wants to know if he should put a mezuzah in the car. So the Conservative rabbi tells him, ‘Well, this is something we must discuss and research. There could be many answers, let me get back to you.’

“So he goes to a Reform rabbi, and the Reform rabbi looks at the car and says, ‘What’s a mezuzah?’ “

The joke might be offensive coming from someone other than 37-year-old Koler, whose warmth often disarms skeptics.

It is Koler’s openness, and his ability to reach out to those who do not share his passion — yet — that have made him a success within the largely secular Jewish community in Brno, one of 10 officially registered Jewish communities in the Czech Republic.

There were 12,000 members of Brno’s Jewish community in 1938. The vast majority were murdered in the Holocaust.

The community now counts about 300 members, and Koler says few of them know much about halachah, or Jewish law.

“My chief priority is to be a teacher, not to convince people of things,” he told JTA in his office. As he answered questions, his fondness for verbal jousting was clear.

Koler, who has been in Brno for only a year and half, is the first rabbi the community has had in 33 years. Until his arrival, community members had to rely on visiting rabbis for occasional holiday services.

When he first got to Brno to take up his post, he started with the basics — Friday night services and a crash course in how to celebrate major holidays.

Recently, at a Chanukah celebration, he and his wife danced in a circle with parents and their children, some of whom were learning their first Hebrew melodies.

An Orthodox rabbi presiding over mixed dancing?

“In my approach, I must be modern Orthodox, even though I am haredi in my heart,” he said. “I have to be practical, and the gain is bigger than the loss.”

The gain was hard-won.

The community was understandably suspicious of Koler when he first arrived, he said, because people feared he would turn out to be an “intolerant religious freak.”

He knew that he would have to earn their trust slowly.

“The community was not religious at all, but mainly served as a social club, whose members did activities together, particularly sports. So I played squash with them, I went skiing with them, and they could see I was quite normal,” he said.

Community member Martin Mandl said, “I was against an Orthodox rabbi in our community because I knew that our members do not live according to such rules. But I must that say after the rabbi came, I changed my mind. He is a very friendly person with a great sense of humor, interested in all aspects of community life.”

About a dozen community members regularly attend Koler’s weekly two-hour lectures on Judaism, which he aims at “people who don’t know too much about Judaism.”

Mandl said the rabbi understands that “Czech atheism” is the rule after more than 40 years of communism, not the exception. Nonetheless, many community members like to come to Koler’s lectures “because he is the only person they know who is educated in Jewish thought, and they can consult him on Jewish questions. His presence is very positive to us.”

Koler is running conversion classes for about 10 pupils. He also writes about the weekly Torah portion, trying to describe its universal implications outside its religious context.

“I am immensely satisfied doing this work, and I think the community loves me,” he said.

Seventy-five percent of the respondents in a community survey conducted after Koler had been in Brno for a year gave him a highly positive evaluation, according to the chairman of Brno’s Jewish community, Pavel Fried.

Fried praised the rabbi’s ability to engage community members based on their individual needs and said that perhaps the only way to revive a community that has been without a religious life is to get back to basics.

“To be reminded of what was commanded to us, and what was forbidden — if this is fundamentalism, I don’t mind it and it won’t do the community any harm,” he said.

“The rabbi has a tactful approach, so no one feels anything is imposed on him.”

Now, thanks to Koler, the synagogue holds regular minyans, the first that anyone can remember.

He offers local Jews the education for which they hunger, and in return they show up on Saturday mornings without being pushed.

“Both sides had to bend,” he said. “I have people who come to services and say, You know, rabbi, I’m an atheist, but I know it’s important to have a minyan.”

Koler, who was not born Jewish, grew up in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. It was during the Communist period, and neither Judaism nor Hebrew were permissible subjects to study, at least openly. But he was curious, learned what he could, and decided that Judaism held the answers for which he had longed. He moved to Israel and converted to Judaism.

During most of the 1990s, he studied Hebrew and talmudic thought at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

The Czech Republic has a shortage of rabbis who can speak Czech, so the country’s head rabbi urged Koler to go back to his native land.

Koler’s role in Brno has not been without controversy. He opposed the community’s recent move to allow people whose mothers were not Jewish, and so themselves are not halachic Jews, to become full members.

On the other hand, his view about the role of women in Judaism has not caused him any problems, according to several community members.

It is clear that he has no problem talking to women, and during the Chanukah festivities, his wife, who was dressed with traditional modesty, played an important role as an educator.

“The Orthodox philosophy does not speak about women as second class,” he said. Instead, men and women are given different mitzvot. They have different roles to fill.

That doesn’t upset anyone in the community, according to Koler. “And Czech women are not American women. They are not particularly worried about feminist matters,” he added.

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