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Around the Jewish World Two Jews, Three Synagogues: Diversity Abounds in Prague, Too

September 26, 2006
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Squinting through one of five tiny peepholes in the thick stone walls of Prague’s medieval Old New Synagogue, it takes a bit of effort for the occupants of the women’s section to see or even hear a Torah reading. The advantage, however, is that amid the group head craning, there is a surprising level of female bonding. You don’t get “shooshed,” because you are so far removed from the service that whispering is not overheard. Thus it’s acceptable on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah to ask an elderly worshiper where she lives.

“I came to Prague from Auschwitz,” she replies, “And I am here because I am Orthodox, and thanks to He above us, I can be.”

Typically Prague? No such thing.

Another Czech Holocaust survivor sits down to a Reform Shabbat service on the first night of the Jewish New Year in what appears to be a classroom with 1970s-era decor. The service is followed by a run for bagged kosher tuna fish sandwiches, consumed on pockmarked wooden tables surrounded by bowling trophies.

Prague’s Jewish Liberal Union warmly welcomes strangers as honored guests without reservation, not a common phenomenon in the Czech capital, still hampered by an inwardness long fostered by the Communist regime.

Although it’s Shabbat, $9 is collected for the no-frills meal and the shofar is blown, with great skill, by a messianic Czech-born Australian whose card says “Jesus is Lord.”

There may be only 1,500 Jews registered in the official Prague Jewish Community, and only some 500 attending services for the Jewish New Year, but there is no lack of diversity. Personality conflicts, myriad degrees of observance, linguistic differences and economic barriers all play a role in preventing many Jews in Prague from ever meeting one another.

But this Rosh Hashanah, there were some hints at a greater desire for unity.

Professor Alexander Fried, schooled at a yeshiva before World War II, is the cantor for the Jewish Liberal Union.

The Slovak native and speaker of 10 languages later turns up at Chabad’s Orthodox services over the New Year weekend.

“I’m a general Jew,” Fried says. “I am comfortable in any setting.”

Fried has lived in Israel and Canada and is comfortable slipping in and out of cultural milieus. For others, it’s not so easy.

Prague’s Jewish community is comprised of Czech Holocaust survivors living on a few hundred dollars a month; Americans whose conversations turn to “millions of dollars” paid in taxes and where to get cosmetic surgery, and everyone in between.

There are three congregations of Jews that define themselves as non-Orthodox. They would like to be together, but personality clashes that have gone on for more than a decade among their leaders ensure that they remain split.

The Jewish Liberal Union service is in part presided over by a Czech writer and convert, Benjamin Kuras, who is also a member of a Liberal synagogue in London.

Like Kuras, who has written editorials on the subject, many of the congregants express distaste for the official umbrella group in Prague, the Prague Jewish Community, overseen by another writer and convert to Orthodoxy, Rabbi Karol Sidon. The conflict is at times more about personalities than levels of observance.

Hana Benesova, a 27-year-old nature conservationist at the Jewish Liberal Union service, says due to tensions within the community, she no longer has any Jewish friends “I used to when I was younger, but they all seem to have disappeared.” But asked if she would be willing to attend services at other shuls around town, where she might meet some Jews her age, she smiles shyly, “Yes, Ok, why not?”

The disunity in Prague also follows ethnic lines.

Israelis seek out Manes Barash, a Brooklyn-born Chabad rabbi, for his flawless Hebrew.

He is also popular with some Americans, but many expatriate women as well as men feel comfortable in the 19th century Spanish Synagogue with Bejt Praha, which is a non-denominational group that follows a Conservative model.

Bejt Simcha, like the Jewish Liberal Union, appeals mostly to Czechs interested in Reform Judaism, although holiday services at the Pinkas Synagogue are led by Ron Hofberg, an American Conservative rabbi. There is also the Jerusalem Synagogue, where a mostly Czech Orthodox congregation has an Israeli cantor whose large family goes to Chabad House, where he turned up for the end of services on Sunday.

It’s all a bit hard to keep track of.

For the first time ever, the Prague Jewish community bulletin board offered a schedule of all the services in Prague, not only those at the Orthodox shuls.

“I only go to Chabad, but I would like to know what goes on at the other shuls. Hey, can I come with you when you synagogue hop?” asks Alan Fleischman, an American architect in Prague.

MJ Bear, director of programming for Radio Free Europe, grew up in a committed Conservative Jewish home in Iowa and typically attends services led by an American rabbi at Bejt Praha.

She got a surprise when she made her first visit to a Bejt Simcha service Saturday at the Pinkas Synagogue and was called up to the Torah for the third aliyah. Looking around the sparsely fill synagogue, she said, “You know, if you took 10 here and 10 there and put everyone together, all of the non-Orthodox, you’d never have to worry about a minyan.”

Then she got another idea. “Maybe next year, all of the Jews of Prague could do Tashlich together,” she said, referring to the symbolic casting off of sins into a body of water at the end of the two-day festival.

This year as some 30 congregants from Bejt Praha threw their sins disguised as bread bits into the Vltava River, Eva Petrikova, a Czech Jew from Brno, contemplated the suggestion of togetherness.

“I have no problems with the other congregations,” she said. The economic, cultural and language barriers, she said, are superficial. “But leaders, I don’t think they will ever agree.”

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