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On Passover, Prague Jews Pray in Synagogue Damaged During Floods

April 28, 2003
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Jewish leaders here have celebrated tangible signs of recovery from last August’s devastating floods that damaged Jewish sites.

On the first day of Passover, prayers were held in the Altneu, or Old-New, Synagogue for the first time since water seeped through underground channels from the nearby Vltava River and forced the community to remove all religious items from the synagogue and shut its doors.

And neighboring Jewish community kitchens, which were destroyed by flood waters, recently reopened.

Israel’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, Arthur Avnon, who attended the first prayers at the synagogue, said the occasion was moving.

“The synagogue is a place which you would look at with awe at any time, but on this occasion I compared how disastrous it looked when I saw it when the flood was still rising and how it looked now. There was a sense of satisfaction and elation,” he told JTA.

Rabbi Yehuda Yesharim, who is now conducting daily prayers at the synagogue, built in the 13th century, said holding the prayers on the first day of Passover had been a symbolic choice. He said restarting prayers demonstrates that Jewish life continues despite the floods.

“Spring is the time of flowering and here we are renewing our prayers,” he said.

Tomas Jelinek, chairman of the Prague Jewish community, welcomed the new developments and thanked everyone who had helped the community through its time of crisis.

“The start of daily prayers in the Altneu is a sign that we have recovered from the damage caused by the floods,” he said. “This is a good opportunity to thank everyone who helped us to overcome this.”

Jelinek said help had come from Jews as far away as Australia, Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis.

“There were many individuals who helped as well and it was very important to us to learn that we are part of the Jewish world, and it appreciates us,” he said.

The community’s flood relief fund remains open, but it is no longer actively seeking donations.

One of the biggest contributors to the restoration of Prague’s Jewish community was the Israeli government, which donated $50,000 and sent an airplane from Israel packed with essentials such as disinfectants, pumps, food and disposable utensils.

Avnon said Israel’s assistance reflects the deep concern the Israeli people felt for the plight of the Prague Jewish community. “The money was put to very good use and we can only be happy that most of what the money was needed for is already restored and almost ready to be in the same situation as it was before the flood,” he said.

Although much of the community’s life has returned to normal, at least one historic Jewish site, the Pinkas Synagogue, remains closed.

Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum which runs the synagogue, said the Pinkas would remain closed until the fall.

Several hundred of the 80,000 names of Holocaust victims inscribed on its walls, which were damaged by the waters, will have to be repainted once reconstruction work has been completed.

“Of course the floods could have been worse,” said Pavlat. “We are lucky that none of the museum’s objects were damaged, but on the other hand the flood was a serious blow to our activities which we had to stop for two months. We witnessed huge support and solidarity from abroad for which we are very grateful.”

Donations amounting to at least $100,000 poured in to the museum in the wake of the floods from groups as diverse as the American Friends of the Czech Republic, the World Monument Fund, the American Jewish Committee, the Czech-German Fund and the City of Hamburg in Germany.

“All this money will go towards damage not covered by the insurance company,” Pavlat said. “The money has been well spent.”

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