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Around the Jewish World Prague Jewish Community Chairman Pushes Change, and Voters Back Him by Magnu

May 5, 2004
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A Jewish coalition that promised to bring a new era of transparency and openness to Prague’s Jewish community has swept into power following a community election that exposed deep divisions between members.

The success of the “Coalition for a Democratic Community” has shored up attempts by community chairman Tomas Jelinek to force through democratic measures that he says were being blocked by some officials who were working in their own interests rather than those of the 1,500 community members.

The coalition, which was formed by Jelinek and David Stecher, chairman of the community’s supervisory board, succeeded in drawing a record 700-plus members in voting last week for Prague’s 26-person Jewish parliament.

The election results led to major changes in the eight-member leadership board, following a reportedly stormy April 30 meeting during which two senior members were ousted.

Jelinek said the coalition’s main demands had included speeding up a project to build a new 60-bed residence for Holocaust survivors, attracting new members to the community and ending conflicts of interest in the running of community affairs.

“The coalition agreed on a program — to get more people into the community, to have changes in its religious life, to strengthen social services and to ensure that it represents the interests of the whole community rather than those of a few,” Jelinek said. “It looks like our hypothesis was right, that we were able to generate the interest of the people who had not participated in elections in recent years.”

The most high-profile losers in the election were Jiri Danicek, editor in chief of the community monthly magazine Rosh Chodesh, and Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum. Both lost their seats on the leadership board.

“It’s not possible to have someone in the elected body who is also working in the community, for example as the chief of Rosh Chodesh or the Jewish Museum,” Jelinek said.

Both Danicek and Pavlat denied that their posts presented conflicts of interest.

“I don’t know what conflict of interest there can be when I manage a magazine that is published by the community and also participate in the community’s management,” Danicek said. He added that no one had ever raised the issue until the start of the campaign.

Pavlat won the second largest number of votes, but failed to get nominated to retain his place on the board.

“The Jewish Museum is an independent legal body on whose board the Prague Jewish community has a minority representation,” he said. “I was supported in the general election by the overwhelming majority of the community, who clearly did not see any clash of interests.”

The Coalition for a Democratic Community was formed after a very public fight last year over the running of the Lauder School, Prague’s only Jewish school.

The dispute centered on the dismissal of a senior teacher following the discovery of pornographic material, but escalated when head teacher Vera Dvorakova, whom Jelinek backed, was fired over the incident.

Dvorakova said the porn was an excuse used by disaffected teachers and those with vested interests in the Jewish community board, which runs the school, to take over the establishment and install their own people.

Jelinek said that the school had improved under Dvorakova and that he was disappointed the board had not been able to find a compromise regarding her position. He also said he was particularly concerned that those who led the revolt against Dvorakova now are running the school.

The election was marked by personal attacks on both sides.

One young member of the community, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the coalition’s direct mailings during the election campaign had slandered senior community figures.

“The result is the overwhelming victory of politicking and slander over common sense,” the community member said. “The destruction caused to communal feelings is tremendous.”

Jelinek conceded that the coalition campaign was “aggressive,” but argued that it was in line with the ethic of transparency.

“For many people it was surprising that we were brave enough to say publicly what the people were talking about,” he said. “We just told them who sits on which board, how the control of the cash-flow of the community is organized and where the influence of people lies.”

Many community members are eager to see if the coalition now will make good on its promises.

Sylvie Wittmannova, founder of the Reform community Bejt Simcha, said she was glad there could be change ahead.

“At the moment, it’s a bubble that has lots of nice colors,” she added. “But maybe it will just burst or blow away. I hope it’s not a populist thing that is just a colorful reflection of people’s wishes.”

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