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Behind the Headlines a Tale of 3 Central European Cities

May 13, 1985
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Czech Jewry is a community for which the options of ending a long and proud history either through mass aliya or through the attrition of assimilation are both unthinkable. The leadership is committed to continuing “an active intellectual community in the tradition of Czech Jewry,” said Dr. Desider Galsky, president of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in the Czech Socialist Republic.

“We are a small community, mostly of survivors,” he said. Only five percent of the pre-war Jewish population of 350,000 remained alive in 1945. “But, as long as we are here,” he told the World Jewish Congress delegation on a recent visit to Prague, “we aim to maintain this community on an active level, and not be just a community of old, ill and helpless Jews.”

There are an estimated 15-18,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia today. For the past 15 years since the last rabbi died and until 1984, the community had no rabbi. But, as Council member Arthur Radvansky told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “a community cannot be a community without a rabbi.” Daniel Meyer was sent to study seven years in Budapest at the Rabbinical Seminary, directed by Dr. Sandor Scheiber until his death in March. The government paid the tuition.

There are 16 communities in the country. The Council maintains social services — such as the attractive restaurant located in the Council building for which the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee allocates $165,000 annually. It also publishes a monthly paper, four bulletins in German with English summaries, and a yearbook with articles on Judaism and occasional literary pieces, such as stories by Agnon and essays by Buber.


Two of the active synagogues in the country are located in Prague and one each in five other cities. There are also 10 “synagogual groups” in Bohemia and Moravia, and II in Slovakia.

The famous Altneuschul in Prague, established in 1270, is part of the State Jewish Museum complex in the beautiful and well-preserved old Jewish Quarter of Prague. The synagogue is gothic in both architecture and practice — so strictly Orthodox that there is no women’s section in the sanctuary.

In 1870, an additional room for women worshippers was added behind the walls of the sanctuary. Women can peek into the sanctuary through a recessed opening in the wall about the size of an average loaf of bread. They are allowed to enter the sanctuary and stand in the corner on Shabbat but not on the High Holy Days.

Unlike the Altneuschul, whose Cantor Feuerlicht was a student at a Satmer yeshiva before the war, the Jerusalem Synagogue is “Neolog” (semi-Conservative). Established in 1906 and located near the Western train station, its congregation is larger than the Altneuschul’s, and the men and women sit separately but in the same room.

The services, with Ladislaw Blum as cantor, are shorter, and the synagogue has a choir of 10 to 15 professional singers (only one of them a Jew) who sing on the High Holy Days. As for alternatives to these two forms of worship, said Meyer, “it is impossible to have Reform Judaism where the Maharal lived.” The Maharal, an acronym for Rabbi Judah Loew (d. 1609) — according to the Jewish legend that has become part of the folklore of Prague — created a golem (android) out of clay to protect the community, and later laid it to eternal rest in the locked attic of the Altneuschul. An impressionistic statue of the Maharal stands in front of the new town hall.

A total of about 35 to 40 people attend Shabbat services at the two synagogues combined; this swells to over 700 on Yom Kippur. On Succot, there is a succah at the Jerusalem Synagogue and in the courtyard of the Council, located in the Old Town Hall. There are also Purim and Chanukah celebrations in the Council building, attended by 70 to 100 young people.


With 75 percent of the 6,000 registered members of the community being between the ages of 65 to 70, and with no second generation to speak of, the community makes much of the four weddings, four circumcisions, and three Bar Mitzvahs that have taken place in the past four years, all at the Altneuschul. Calling attention to the increase of children at the Chanukah celebration from 18 in 1974 to 75 in 1984, Meyer told the JTA, “This is the future.”

It is also a source of pride and joy in the community that it has become a “tradition” that the second of the two communal seders — held in Prague with an attendance of about 120 each — is specially for the youth.

There are eight young adults in the community who, Galsky said, “are more religious than our generation” and define being a Jew as being strictly observant. Of these, four to five worship on Shabbat the Altneuschul and three to four at the Jerusalem Synagogue.

Six of the eight are new converts to Judaism, mostly professionals in the 20-35 age group with families. They are “more religious than those born Jewish,” Meyer told JTA. In a country where many people do not register with the community out of concern that it will impede their careers, the existence of converts to Judaism points, again, to the fact that many young people are actively searching for religious content and expressions in their lives.


Meyer told JTA he went to study in Budapest “to help our community. We have to be pioneers.” He hopes to be able to start a Talmud Torah in September, starting with six to seven pupils. He would also like to begin a program of lectures on Jewish history for adults two afternoons a week. Both projects require and await final approval by the Ministry of Culture and cannot proceed without it.

Though young – in his late 20’s – and eager to press forward with these plans, Meyer also seems to have the patience and perseverance necessary to pilot them through the bureaucratic shoals. In an interview with the JTA conducted in Hebrew, Meyer described himself as “an optimist but not a prophet.

“It’s a small community and a large museum,” he said. “Ten years from now, I don’t want to see our community be only a museum.”

In a community acutely conscious of the Holocaust, a community whose center, Prague, is just an hour-and- a-half away from Terezin (Theresienstadt), many Jews feel the need to tell visitors about their experiences in this concentration camp out of anxiety that they not be forgotten.

One such story was told to me by Prof. Irma Lauscherova, a short, totally gray-haired woman in her late 70’s who was a teacher at Terezin. Only 94 of the 15,000 children imprisoned there survived. The story she told is about those children she loved so well.

“One day in 1943 someone, somehow, brought in a little sapling. The children planted it between blocks of the fortress. They took responsibility for caring for the frail little tree. In the winter, they covered the tree with pieces of straw from their mattresses.

“As children were taken away to Auschwitz, new ones would replace them in caring for their tree.

“The children did not survive. But the tree did. After the war, it was replanted in the Terezin cemetery. It grew and grew. It came up to my shoulder, then grew some more until it towered over my head. Now the tree is so tall, I can walk under it like a canopy.”

(Next: A Reporter’s Notebook)

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