CZECH REPUBLIC/PRAGUE- 2008
RABBI RON HOFFBERG
A general report of the year’s actvities – 2008
I serve as the Masorti rabbi not only for Prague, but the entire Czech Republic. I am also the only non-orthodox rabbi resident in the country, which gives me an over all representative role for Masorti among all the Jews around the country’s ten other Jewish communities, as well as Prague. I am invited to conduct services teach and give lectures around the country, in the universities and interfaith forum throughout the country. Although as a sign of the impression this has made, the Reform now bring a Reform rabbi once a month from Munich to conduct Reform Services in Prague and in one of the other communities. This report will focus on my activity in Prague this past year 2008.
Religious Services and Community Building:
I continue to maintain a regular Friday evening service which began with my arrival in September 2001. We maintain a weekly Kabbalat Shabbat Service, where we have developed a communal nusach and a regular minyan attendance and welcome weekly visitors (there are many from our masorti community around Europe and N. America) and groups to our Tefillot. Each week Together with our Executive Board I organize the service and because we have a rabbi we have been able to hold the Service in the Jewish Town Hall (of the Orthodox community).
Each week and many Chagim we join with the Service for Shabbat am with the Service at Jerusalem Street/Jubilee Synagogue. This is an orthodox Service of the Prague Jewish Community, but we are welcome and participate with some limitations. I often lead portions of the Tefillot and our community and guests feel most welcome. We shared in the Sukkot Celebration this year with Marom/ Masorti organizing a Dinner for first night in the Sukkah. (over 40 attendees-quite good for our community).
Once a month and for some Holiday celebration (ie Shavuot and Simchat Torah) we join with the Reform community Bejt Simcha in their facility where I conduct a service/celebration for both groups. This enables us to guarantee a number of Tefillot opportunities which are egalitarian. Our members participate in teaching, in Aliyot, Kriat Hatorah and study. These arrangements offer us the ability to offer a full schedule of Shabbat and Holy Day Services and these communities have a rabbi because of Marom/ Masorti.
We have no physical location of our own, thus we are able to offer a full range of tefillot for Shabbat and Chagim without rental fees and costs. This year we also had our own High Holiday, a Tu B Shvat Seder (In a pub), and Purim Services in facilities of the General Community.
This year we organized Passover Seders at the home of our President Shumi Berkowitz. Not only our community attended, but many U.S.students studying in Prague, as well. We provide the only “welcoming “seder in English as well as Czech and Hebrew. This year was a smaller group due to the calendar timing, but in past yearshave hosted as many as160. Shavuot saw a well attended Tikkun Leyl Shavuot Service and Study with Holiday Dinner organized at my apartment Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur, we organized services in the historic High Synagogue part of the Jewish Town Hall. I organize and conduct (as Hazzan, Baal Koreh, Baal Tekiah etc.) all services. Besides the Chabad andPrague Orthodox Community Option, our non-orthodox option usually draws the largest attendance and is the only place Jews “returning” to the synagogue are welcome and find a welcoming place.
Tisha B ” Av we joined with the Orthodox community at the Alt/Neu Synagogue. Sukkot and SimchatTorah were celebrated with the Jerusalem Street/Jubilee Synagogue where we help to provide the Sukkah and organized a Sukkah dinner for the entire community. We had a separate Simchat Torah Celebration together with the Reform, so that all our members could participate in Kriah and Aliyot. For Chanukah, we had several celebrations for our Members including a special Shabbat Chanukah Dinner, The First Evening Candle lighting we joined with the Community and held our Marom/Masortis celebration the next evening at the home of our President Shumi Berkowitz. An event that was well attended by our members and included many new faces.
Outreach to college students , the many who come to study in Prague from the USA, UK, South Africa, Australia etc for semester and year program studies and I work closely with the CET Jewish Studies Program and the CIEE study program of Charles University, welcoming the students to our religious services, holiday Celebrations and offering other rabbinic counseling, as needed. Many of these students are from non-orthodox ie: our own Conservative congregations in the States. We plan Shabbat and Holiday dinners with all students with the help of an intern from the CET program (an arrangement I initiated four years ago). This is also an important connection for our Marom people in Prague.
We welcome many visitors to Prague from our Kehillot in the States, Israel and around Europe, as well. In the past year, I have conducted weddings in our community and the first Brit Mila (at eight days-here it is usually teens or adults!!) and am preparing Bar/Bat Mitzva young people in the non Orthodox community These young people have Jewish Parentage and grandparents who survived the Holocaust. These events are quite moving.
We arrange Shabbat Dinner’s at my apartment for our masorti community. Holiday celebrations as well. These are “pot-luck” style, or I prepare or we bring in food from the Jewish Community. This has given me the opportunity to teach Shabbat, hachnasat Orchim, and Jewish Home. Important in a community where there is normally no parent/home experience due to the Communism and secular nature of the community. In the past week we welcomed the new students in the College Spring programs with a festive community dinner we wereable to organize in a community Kosher Restaurant.
Pesach this year will again be a big Challenge. The Holiday falls at time when there will also be a large visiting college –age population. In some past years I have Kashered an Israeli restaurant, which then prepares the seder meals. This takes a great deal of preparation and supervision. Ours is the only seder in English, Czech and Hebrew. Organizing and conducting this seder is both time consuming and costly. The subsidies have enabled us to make the cost reasonable for the Czech community as well as the visiting college students. (A higher cost would simply exclude these people leaving them with no seder)
I teach a weekly class in Basic Judaism and Parashat Hashavua. The class meets around the year, summer as well. The class has been continuous for six and one half years. This is required fo those preparing for Conversion (we are the only halachic/non orthodox option). The class is well attended and is an important entry point for those “seeking their Jewish Roots”. We run special holiday workshops in the context of these classes, as well. We have added a series of workshops this year, taught by a returning Conservative Yeshivah Student, Jiri Blazek, on various aspects of the Synagogue and Services made accessible for those with limited background.
Throughout the past year, I have been teaching a beginner’s and advanced class for Hebrew (Ulpan materials) to give more people access to the Prayer Book and to teach Zionism, as well. I teach as well the Bar/Bat Mitzva students in the Bet Elend non denom. afternoon religious school and have successfully encouraged halachic alignment (Brit Milah and Mikva) for necessary situations.
Besides these classes, I am called upon around the year to give guest lectures in the Reform community and in University and High School classes. Visiting groups of non-Jewish students coming to Prague call upon me to lecture on Judaism, Jewish History and Holocaust. I am usually the only rabbi here that is available for these groups. As a Special Marom/Masorti Component to the Herzl exhibition we organized this past year I delivered a major address on Herzl and early Zionist History in the Jewish Museum Educational Program. I am asked to lecture to some classes of the Christian Faculties in Prague.
We are also developing some projects with the Czech Union of Jewish Students both in religious areas and Zionist education.
I will include under education, Interfaith work with Dialogue groups and various Christian leaders in Prague. I am usually the only rabbi working with the Jewish community who will address or participate in such groups. In the past years, I spoke at a Peace Conference organized in Brno and sat on several panels including FORUM 2000 an interfaith initiative under former President Vaclav Havel. This year I participated in several such Conferences held in Prague, under the auspices of the Theological Faculties as serving as a keynote speaker at a Conference on Clergy Chaplaincy roles – a new area just developing in this country. I also write articles for Interfaith Journals regarding Jewish areas of concern.
The Conversion program that I organize and run here is the only rigorous preparation for Halachic Conversion that exists outside the Orthodox Community. Our candidates have successfully gone to our Bet Din in London (Of which I am a member) in the past year. Seven members of our community have gone on Aliyah , most stay active participants in our Masorti community. I am the only rabbi here who councils people interested in conversion. (most come from one Jewish Parent or grand parent homes). A week does not go by without some phone conversation or appointment around this all important theme of “return” to our people.
I am invited to take part in Holocaust commemorations (often transport anniversaries) in towns outside of Prague to speak or offer Memorial Prayers (often the only Jew in attendance). The past two years I have been invited to the Czech national Commemoration in the Senate as a rabbi (giving our Masorti and non-Orthodox community a presence).
I have already mentioned the extensive counseling I provide in areas of Conversion as well as with the visiting students. In addition my rabbinic counseling extends to the ill and bereaved and in the past year there were also several instances of family counseling (marital) which I was called upon to do. In the past year I have even been called upon in situations of Personal crisis intervention. People here are not used to talking to anyone and I have become known as a good rabbinic counselor for those in need. The idea that confidentiallity and secrecy are respected is not common as well as the idea of turning to a rabbi. It has been an important role that I have played in certain siutuations. Here in Prague, I have done ALIYAH counseling, as well, as helping people with the regular challenges of increasing Jewish life and identity in this society.
In the area of lay leadership development, I am pleased that this year we held the first transition of officers via election. This is a new group of leaders who are working to represent the community in lay groups of masorti-olami, as well as the Prague community. They continue to pursue our affiliation in the Federation of Jewish Communities. This leadership is a mix of older and younger people who have come to the community through studying with me and learning about the working of a Jewish Community. There are still great challenges that stem from a lack of continuity and commitment by younger people.
I have developed, as well, a number of young people who can lead the services on Friday night and participate in various levels of ritual: ritual participation, Aliyot to the Torah, Torah Reading, Haftorah, Shofar blowing and more. There is no “past” for them to have learned from in most cases, so this has meant a great deal in our services. Our services are highly participatory and thus attractive. I encourage and help people learn ritual skills and we create opportunities for all to participate. I am now working to involve our leaders in the European regional activities of Masorti Olami and Marom , We are all pleased that our President Shumi Berkowitz is active and attending European wide Board meetings. I meet regularly with our Board and aid in their deliberations and learning of leadership skills.
From September 06 through June 07 Gafna Foltynova was coordinator for Marom/ masorti Activites. Following Gafna, Katerina Vyzvaldova has become our Coordinator. She expanded on the excellent work done by Gafna. Since she left the position, we have been unable to hire a new coordinator, but our President has been, with help of various people he has gotten to help, able to cover matters of organization and arrangements. We are in need of help in these areas
There is a great deal which must be done to develop better publicity, expanding our website, organizing membership and more effective communication with the general and Jewish Community.
I am teaching at the University, teaching English and Tour Guiding, all I must say to enable us to do our work in the Jewish Community. This challenge has become much greater due to the weakened dollar and price rises here in the Czech Republic. In addition I am dealing with some health challenges that make earning extra funds a bit more difficult. But we have accomplished so much and must continue to keep our presence and momentum.
In closng. I am grateful for the financial support that has come via Masorti-Olami, Marom and WZO enabling me to continue my work of the last seven and a half years in the Masorti Community of Prague and the greater Jewish Community, as well. I appreciate the efforts of the Masorti Board of Europe and the concern of the Professional Staff for the ongoing development of our Community and realization of the Challenges that make our post communist society a particular challenge. The progress of the last seven and a half years has opened and created the possibilities for change in the more open and accepting orthodox community and the areas of cooperation and acceptance continue to expand because of the presence of a Masorti rabbi. It has taken years to build a trust and recognition for non-orthodox Judaism and Masorti which would not have happened without the presence and activity of a Masorti rabbi. Yosher Koach for your help and support!!
RABBI RON HOFFBERG