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Around the Jewish World Stoking Controversy, Sidon is Reappointed As Prague Chief Rabbi

December 9, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A year and a half after he was dismissed as chief rabbi, Karol Sidon has been reappointed to the post by the new leaders of Prague’s Jewish community. “He was unfairly and illegally dismissed by the past chairman,” Tomas Jelinek, “and we want to right this wrong,” said Jakub Roth, the community’s new vice president.

Roth noted that the community was hoping to find someone who could replace Sidon, 60, when he retires.

“We would like to have someone working with him now,” Roth said, “someone with perhaps a Slavic background who understands our language and, most of all, our culture.”

Roth belonged to an anti-Jelinek group that took most of the seats on the board in an election last month. The board’s new leaders ensured that Sidon will preside once again over the 13th-century Old-New Synagogue, one of the oldest active synagogues in Europe, when it reopens Dec. 9.

The synagogue was closed last spring after a fight broke out there between supporters of Sidon and those who favored Manes Barash, a U.S.-born Chabad rabbi.

Jelinek appointed Barash as the synagogue’s rabbi after firing Sidon over allegations of mishandling religious objects and more general disagreements over authority.

The community’s relationship with Chabad has been further soured with Sidon’s reappointment.

Sidon had asked a rabbinical judge in Israel to rule on the case, and the judge approved Barash. Barash insists that the community is now violating religious law by reappointing Sidon.

“This is not a political matter; it’s a religious matter,” Barash said. “I’m not interested in stealing the synagogue, as some would like to accuse me of. The judge made a ruling, and I cannot understand why the community will not stick to it.”

Barash conducts services at Chabad House, but he believes that as a native English speaker he would be well equipped to help the thousands of tourists who come to the city’s Jewish Quarter each summer, some for services at the Old-New Synagogue. Sidon doesn’t speak English.

Ever since he took the synagogue post at Jelinek’s request, Barash said, Jelinek’s opponents have been “hateful” toward him, fomenting dislike and fear of Chabad that “bears no relation to anything that has occurred.”

“They try to make it out like Chabad in Prague is some sort of threat, but give me a break — we’ve been here for nine years and we have always recognized the community’s authority,” he said. “They have not been interested in cooperating with us.”

Roth has a different view, arguing that the community was misrepresented at the judicial arbitration in Israel.

“Mr. Jelinek claimed to have the consent of the board, which he did not,” Roth said. “There’s a rule in halachah that any ruling based on a lie is null and void. So it’s not that we don’t accept the ruling of a rabbinical court, but that there never was any legally binding ruling in place.”

Barash’s wife, Dina, did not have her contract renewed this summer as the community’s mikvah attendant. She was replaced by a less-experienced attendant, who some of the women say is openly hostile to Barash.

Some 50 women visit the mikvah regularly, and nearly half joined a petition asking that Dina Barash be reinstated, saying they were more comfortable with her than with the new attendant.

Dina Barash can still take women to the mikvah, but she no longer has keys and must contact the other attendant before making an appointment.

“The mikvah should not be politicized,” said Diana Ben Perets, one of the women who signed the petition. “This is a very personal thing — who you go to the mikvah with, who you pray with and take your clothes off in front of.”

Roth said the women still could choose which attendant to take to the mikvah. He compared the argument over the mikvah to “two people fighting over a printer in the office.”

But he did say the issue was “part of the local Chabad’s striving to take over the community’s religious life. We have seen an ugly foray of Chabad in their attempt to take over the Old-New Shul, and now it’s the mikvah.”

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