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Liberal Jewish Groups in Prague Square off Following Firing of Rabbi

September 18, 2002
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As Jews worldwide celebrated the new year, it marked a watershed for two communities in Prague.

For Bejt Praha, the Jewish group that prides itself on its broad welcome to anyone who “feels Jewish,” the turning point came when it broke ties with the rabbi it had brought to the Czech Republic from the United States to serve as its spiritual leader.

Rabbi Ronald Hoffberg, who was dismissed less than a year into his two-year contract, “did not fulfil his commitment to the board,” said Peter Gyori, the executive director of Bejt Praha.

Hoffberg is now heading efforts to form an official Masorti, or Conservative, community that will be affiliated with Masorti Olami, the World Union of Masorti. Around 10 former members of Bejt Praha left with him.

“Everyone has the right to hire and fire but it was the manner in which it was done, without following correct legal procedures, and right before the High Holidays that we object to. It was immoral and unethical,” said Petr Pechan, one of the defectors, who adds that he was unfairly dismissed as an associate member of Bejt Praha’s board.

“That is not the way to run an organization that claims to be open.”

Neither side is keen to dwell on the dispute. What does appear clear is that politics and personality conflicts were involved.

Pechan also suggests that some Bejt Praha board members were unhappy about conversions, an allegation Gyori is unwilling to discuss.

While admitting the dispute has been unpleasant and difficult, both sides preferred to avoid to avoid dwelling on the recent past.

In the rabbi’s apartment, close to the recently swelled Vltava River, members of the new community gathered recently to look toward the future.

Members of the Bejt Praha board “did what they wanted to do. The fact that I and some others have left Bejt Praha does not make a difference. I am continuing the work that I came here for, for Masorti Olami, and I continue to offer a traditional approach to Judaism,” said Hoffberg, who came to Prague from New Jersey.

“Although it is still very difficult for some people to express their Jewish identity, many people here are reconnecting with their Jewish roots, and these young people who are so eager and determined to convert are important for the future of the Jewish community here in Prague.”

Nearby in a coffee shop just off Prague’s historic Old Town Square, Gyori described recent events as “unpleasant and unethical” and talks of the upsetting experience of receiving disturbing messages and letters.

“It was a difficult time and it makes me very sad, but we hope to learn from the experience and to go forward,” he said.

Gyori was far happier to talk about the recent High Holidays services.

Initially, Bejt Praha’s services in the 19th-century Spanish Synagogue seemed set to be canceled due to damage suffered in the recent devastating floods.

“People were calling me four days before the service and asking where it would take place, and I couldn’t tell them as we had alternative locations lined up. We had contingency plans to transport everything in rucksacks by bike across town because cars were banned from the city center,” he said.

At the 11th hour, however, Bejt Praha officials were given the green light by the Prague Jewish Museum to stage the service in the synagogue — complete with a borrowed generator and lights lent by a film company.

Though weekly services conducted in Czech, English and Hebrew are usually swelled by tourists, visitor numbers to Prague during the High Holidays were down because following the flood.

“Halfway through prayers, the generator broke down because it couldn’t cope with all the film lights, so we had to sit in darkness until someone restarted it.

“But it didn’t matter. We were just so happy that we could be in the Spanish Synagogue,” Gyori said.

Despite the departure of several Bejt Praha members, Gyori has plans to recruit many more.

The eight-year-old group, which was set up as an alternative to the official Orthodox community, is already on the lookout for a new non-Orthodox rabbi who will “have a good working relationship with the board,” he added.

He also said he foresees Bejt Praha “growing and growing and continuing to offer educational courses. There are so many people in Prague with Jewish roots, and I want to reach out to them and encourage them to come along,” he says.

That open welcome was what attracted Jiri Blazek to Bejt Praha, although he has since left along with Hoffberg.

The 21-year-old theology and Judaism student is one of 18 Czechs and Slovaks who have spent several years studying in preparation for conversion.

“My grandmother was Jewish, but under the Germans and then under the Communist regime, she rejected her religion.

“But ever since my childhood I have felt Jewish, and I am so happy because I feel I have found a part of myself that was missing.

“My family is happy for me because they think that I have found my way,” he added.

Jiri now has ambitions to be a non-Orthodox rabbi in the Czech Republic.

“It’s my dream,” he says. “There are so many people with Jewish roots who don’t want to become Jewish because they feel discrimination is still widespread, and we all want to change that.”

Meanwhile, the dispute between Hoffberg supporters and Bejt Praha remains unsettled.

Hoffberg said he is considering legal action.

Gyori said he was hopeful that reconciliation will follow in time.

“Prague is small. We cannot afford not to have a united Jewish community,” he said.

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