He fought a desperate battle against communism, crafted award-winning plays and books and functioned as an intellectual and spiritual compass for Prague’s Jewish community for more than a decade.
But in late June, something extraordinary happened: Karol Sidon was forced out as the community’s chief rabbi.
Leaders from Jewish Community of Prague, the governing body that dismissed him, said that the Orthodox rabbi could no longer perform his duties. Although Sidon will keep his post as the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, three other rabbis will share local religious and leadership duties. But while Sidon’s dismissal from his important leadership role — just weeks before the community celebrates the High Holidays — shocked local Jews, it also exposed a profound ideological rift between the country’s aging Orthodox community and a tidal wave of younger, liberal worshippers.
“We are an old community with a death rate of about 80 people per year,” said Tomas Jelaapluralistic community.nek, leader of Prague’s Jewish community. “To attract the hundreds of Czech Jews who are not affiliated, we have to build a pluralistic community. We need a different approach. No one group should have a monopoly.”
Such is the debate among Prague’s Jews, a community of about 1,600 averaging 58 years of age. As many 10,000 Czech Jews live in the country today, but secularism has taken its toll, and to the members of Prague’s leadership, a large segment of the country’s Jews remain frustratingly unaffiliated. Some think the community will dwindle even further if a new approach is not taken.
While Reform and Conservative Jewish groups attract new members at a swift pace, membership in Prague grows at a crawl. Many wonder if the community can survive without members of different sects. Some even see signs that it will soon be forced to include members without Jewish mothers or Jewish grandparents.
In the eyes of halacha, Martin Smok is definitely a Jew.
Born to a Czech Jewish mother who unveiled her heritage after the fall of communism, Smok knows his way around a Prague synagogue, can navigate the nuances of Hebrew prayer and song and is familiar with the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat. But despite his comfort with the religious rituals — developed after his mother revealed her secret — Smok remains uneasy with the spiritual side of Judaism.
“If I was in this country and I was trying to live a religious life, I would feel like I was putting up a theater show,” Smok said. “It’s really about the religion not being a part of me in my formative years. I feel that I would be faking it — it’s not who I really am.”
Such is the outlook of many Jews in what is now the Czech Republic, home to the same Jewish community that included Franz Kafka, Rabbi Loew and the legend of the Golem. If the attitude of today’s Czech Jews could be captured in one phrase, it would be this: Jewish in heart, secular in spirit.
“I think the rule here, especially in Prague, is that the Jewish tradition has always been to not have any Jewish tradition,” Smok said. “What I have observed is Czech Jews not interested in being Jewish, and non-Jews extremely interested in being Jewish.”
After Hitler murdered 85 percent of the country’s Jewish population, the surviving community of Czech Jews found themselves driven toward secularism once the communists took over and institutionalized religious persecution. Many Jews simply surrendered their religious heritage to intermarriage and assimilation.
But when the last of the Soviet tanks finally rolled out of the Czech Republic in the late 1980s and democracy took a foothold for the first time in decades, many Czechs surprised their families by revealing a Jewish heritage.
“My mother, like many, ‘came out’ after communism fell,” Smok said. “But she worshipped in her own way, which sort of combined Christian and Jewish symbols.”
Such a patchwork of religious practices is typical, if there is even a religious element at all: for many Czech Jews, the decades of religious oppression stripped their Judaism of its spirituality, leaving them with cultural roots but no desire to actually worship. With so many Czech Jews declining to embrace their religious legacy, the community has begun exploring ways to expand its membership beyond the traditional definitions of what it means to be a Jew.
A recent post-communist influx of non-Orthodox organizations like the Reform group Bejt Simcha and Conservative group Bejt Praha, have encouraged many Czech Jews to challenge the notion that one must have a Jewish mother to be fully accepted as Jewish. These younger organizations court halacha Jews, but also younger, liberal Jews who might have a Jewish grandparent or might have no Jewish ancestors at all.
“A lot of this is happening because there is so much intermarriage, that even people with a Jewish background do not have a Jewish mother,” said Rabbi Arnold Turetsky, one of the co-founders of Bejt Praha. “There is a lot of desire to convert.”
An Uncertain Future
If you were to take a lunchtime stroll into the building that houses the Jewish community’s leadership in Josefov, you would most likely find a large, cavernous lunchroom filled with a few small clusters of members talking quietly. Despite the large space and many tables filling the building’s cafeteria, most of the chairs sit empty. To Barash, this practically empty room is an obvious symbol of the failure by the community to capture the hearts of Czech halacha Jews.
“The community for the last eight years has had a membership between 1,500 and 1,600,” said Chabad Rabbi Manis Barash, who recently replaced Sidon as the official rabbi for the Old-New Synagogue. “There has never been a real campaign to try and get new members into the community. People who do come here come on their own accord, almost as if it is discouraged to do so. The only benefit to join right now is a subsidized lunch, and even then there are only about 10 regular members who take advantage of this. There is a feeling toward those who want to join the community that, ‘We don’t want you to be a part of our community — this is my community, not yours.'”
But Barash still maintains that halachic Jews are the key to the group’s survival.
“We have a real opportunity to make this community grow,” Barash said. “I’m not talking about non-Jews. There are enough [halachic] Jews here, but surely the community can do better than it has done. Anything would be better.”
Many blame the community’s membership woes on the application process itself, saying that becoming an official member of the Jewish community is far too complicated and intimidating, even for Czech Jews born to a Jewish mother.
“The community has the potential to be one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe,” Barash said. “But it is easier to become a Czech citizen then to join the community. You have to provide proof of a Jewish mother, and it is a complicated process. As Jews, we have to have the [physical] security to protect ourselves. But we should be welcoming in other ways — especially to those who seek us out to join.”
There are some promising signs that the community is opening itself up to non-Jews.
Jelaanek says he has been working since September 2001 to expand the official community beyond membership, and points to a recent development in which the community began to offer affiliate membership to those with a Jewish grandparent. But to the liberal groups on the outside who receive neither funding nor support from the community itself, the move simply isn’t enough. They say that the leadership should represent the typical Prague Jew.
“Why should we be in secular Prague with an Orthodox rabbi?” said Sylvie Wittmann, leader and founder of Bejt Simcha, a Reform Jewish congregation based in Prague made up of more than 145 Czech Reform Jews. “Everyone is interested in their roots, but we are a secular community. The roots of Czech Jews are not Orthodox.”
Today’s Czech Jews face a question they never had to confront until the early 1990s: explaining which type of Jew they are. Before the Velvet Revolution forced the communists from power in 1989, Jews were simply Jewish. But, with the Iron Curtain drawn back, several Western groups moved in and put down roots in the Czech Republic during the tumultuous and exhilarating years of the early 1990s, Smok said, inadvertently fracturing the community.
“The activists moved in after the fall of communism and began using these labels,” Smok said. “Now, if you are labeled as a Reform Jew, it’s often used as an excuse not to learn certain things. Many of the liberal Jews show up to the synagogues, happy to embrace the Jewish faith. But in the end, they sometimes don’t even know how to pray.”
If you strip away the confusion brought on by Western-style labels, however, some say that the community’s fractious discord is less an issue of theology and more an issue of authority over the restored Jewish monuments and memorabilia that remain in Prague. After the Nazis and communists stripped Czech Jews of nearly all of their prized property — from synagogues to artwork — the community spent the years since the fall of communism attempting to regroup and reclaim it, said Tomas Kraus, leader of the nation’s Federation of Jewish Communities. This important responsibility continues today, but the various groups disagree over who exactly would do the best job handling it.
“This is how we started in the 1990s,” said Kraus, of the small group of Jews who banded together after communism to rebuild the community. “No social network, no organization. We had to start from scratch. Of the properties taken during the Holocaust, 90 percent were not returned. We had to fight for them and are still fighting for them.”
While different factions argue over the future of these historical and religious sites, Reform groups like Bejt Simcha feel completely left out of the decision-making process.
But here is increasingly distant hope among community leadership that Czech Jews would ever fill these synagogues, however, even if the synagogues stayed places of worship. With diminished birthrates across the country, some Czech Jews feel that the millions of dollars earned by tourist visits to Prague each year should be used to recruit members into the community. But whether that recruitment focuses on Reform, Conservative or Orthodox members still remains to be seen.
“Right now, we have a complicated system where not everyone is equal,” Jelaanek said. “But if change is going to be made, it has to be made soon. If we don’t get to people now, we will die out.”
Jennifer Anne Perez is a former Los Angeles Times reporter now working as an international freelance journalist based in Prague. Andrew Steven Harris is a former Los Angeles Times editor who now teaches journalism at the State University of New York’s international campus in Prague.