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Around the Jewish World Rift in Prague Community Widens After Move Passes to Oust Chairman

November 11, 2004
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What started as a promise to democratize Prague’s Jewish Community has turned so sour that community members have voted to oust their chairman for the first time since World War II. The dismissal of Prague’s chief rabbi, turmoil at the country’s only Jewish school and the passing of personal data to a company run by an alleged secret police agent under communism all contributed to tensions in the 1,600-member community.

Tomas Jelinek, who served as an economic advisor to former President Vaclav Havel, was elected to a second term as chairman last April. But his tenure has proven so contentious that his opponents organized to orchestrate his removal, which they claim they have achieved.

At the end of a 9 ½-hour community assembly on Sunday, 173 of 190 members still in attendance voted to immediately recall Jelinek and his three vice chairpersons. They also issued a vote of no-confidence in the 26-member community board, also known as the Parliament, on which Jelinek had a majority of supporters.

Another assembly has been called for Dec. 5, at which time a final vote of confidence will be held. If it goes against the board, it must resign and new elections will be held. But if more supporters of Jelinek and his team help turn the tide at the meeting, a legal dispute might ensue over the chairmanship.

"I do not accept the decision to remove me. According to the community bylaws, only the board can do that," Jelinek said.

Tomas Pasternak, a lawyer and community member who voted to remove Jelinek, said he can’t imagine that community professionals will be eager "to remove Mr. Jelinek’s keys and take away his cell phone, so it is unclear what happens now. I imagine that in the worst-case scenario, members of the community would take Mr. Jelinek to court if he refuses to step down."

If Jelinek galvanizes supporters for the Dec. 5 meeting, there is sure to be a showdown between the chairman and his opponents.

Jelinek says his opponents are angry that they have lost influence after controlling the community’s political and economic interests since the early 1990s.

The three men most commonly referred to by Jelinek supporters as the "old guard" are Karol Sidon, whom Jelinek recently forced out as Prague’s chief rabbi; Jirka Danicek a former chairman of the community; and Leo Pavlat, director of Prague’s Jewish Museum.

Pasternak agreed that some members might feel that a clique controlled the community for too long, before Jelinek started to make different decisions about how the community’s large financial holdings should be deployed.

But, he said, "I think the real objection was Jelinek’s abrasive style. In his second term he had a majority in the Parliament and started doing the things he wanted to do, without regard for the democratic process."

The latest controversy was over a database of community members with addresses and some e-mail contacts that Jelinek this summer passed to a public relations firm, without the knowledge or approval of community members. One of the firm’s principals is listed on two Web sites — including one from the country’s Interior Ministry — as having been a secret police collaborator under the Communist regime.

"Can you imagine what it feels like for a Holocaust survivor, and a Jew persecuted under communism, to find out that his or her personal data has been passed on to such a person? It’s outrageous," said Jake Roth, spokesman for the "Community for All" faction that sought Jelinek’s removal.

Jelinek, for his part, told JTA he had signed a data-protection agreement with the agency and that the information would be used only within the community.

"I think it’s no coincidence that this coup is going on during the forensic audit that I ordered," he said, suggesting that the previous administrative or financial errors of former community leaders might come to light.

Jelinek refused to give more details while the audit is ongoing.

The database uproar comes only five months after Jelinek angered a number of former community leaders by firing Sidon. Sidon remains chief rabbi of the Czech Republic.

A playwright, convert and former anti-Communist dissident, Sidon helped rebuild the Jewish community after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. He has told journalists that the internal split in the community really started over the Lauder Jewish School, which was hit by a scandal last year after pornography was found on the school’s Internet server.

In that case, a principal whom Jelinek backed fired a teacher, who it later turned out probably was not the real culprit.

Last summer, 17 teachers left after the resignation of the school’s principal, who quit under pressure from the Jelinek leadership, which said she had made serious mistakes. Some parents consequently threatened to remove their children from the school.

Finally, there is the issue of Hagibor, a proposed old-age home for Holocaust survivors spearheaded by Jelinek, a project he discusses with passion. Jelinek feels the former leadership did a poor job of managing community assets, neglecting the needs of Holocaust survivors.

"Right now more than 60 percent to 70 percent of the community is made up of Holocaust survivors, but much more money was invested by the previous leadership into stones than into the assistance survivors deserve," Jelinek said.

By "stones," Jelinek said he was referring to buildings rented by the Jewish Museum, which he says has received five times as much investment as have facilities for Holocaust survivors.

But his critics said that was not the real issue.

"What many of us do not like is that the financial plan Jelinek has presented is very unclear, very unprofessional" charged Barbora Rappaport, an event planner for a Czech bank who was married by Sidon a few days after he was told to pack his bags.

Jelinek is convinced that his critics are sore losers and that their complaints are a smokescreen.

"I won the election last April with a clear majority. But now there are people who simply cannot accept defeat and don’t want anyone to run the community who will not accept their influence," he said.

Jelinek’s supporters tout his efforts to make the community more appealing to foreign, Reform and Conservative Jews, and to make its procedures more transparent.

Tomas Homola, who voted for Jelinek last spring, hopes Jelinek has the chance to further transform the community.

"At the moment when the April elections changed the composition of the community organs, the majority enabled a change in the way property was being controlled, and that is the root cause of the conflict you see now," he said.

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