PRAGUE — On June 29, the Jewish Community of the Czech Republic abruptly dismissed its chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, a playwright and a well-known communist-era dissident, after 12 years of service.
Two days later, the Jewish Community named Manis Barash — the longtime Chabad Lubavitch rabbi in Prague, who is a native of New York and of Russian parentage — to a newly created post: chief rabbi of the Old-New Synagogue (Altneuschul), the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe and the former pulpit of the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Löw, popularly known as the creator of the most famous Golem.
Sidon’s supporters, including the gabbais, or sextons, of the Old-New Synagogue, are protesting the rabbi’s dismissal. After an impassioned speech last Friday evening — possibly Sidon’s final one in the synagogue — a petition for his reinstatement was circulated.
“We are gravely distressed by the fact that the leadership of the Jewish Community of Prague did not deem it necessary to openly talk with us about such a major change, which actually does not affect them, as people who do not participate in prayers in the Altneuschul even during the highest Jewish holidays, but us, the regular minyan,” it reads. “At the same time, we are puzzled by the fact that Rabbi Barash accepted this position without making sure beforehand that he, as a representative of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Prague, would be welcome as a rabbi of the Altneuschul by its congregants.”
Until now, the activities of Chabad Prague and the Prague Jewish Community have been deliberately kept separate, almost to the point of animosity on both sides. Barash’s appointment extends Chabad’s influence even further in Eastern Europe, in communities decimated by the Holocaust and communism and slowly resurrecting Jewish life.
The removal followed charges of ineptitude and political maneuvering launched from both sides.
“I don’t want to comment on all the reasons for the dismissal because it is an internal issue, but I can say that his failure to run the office successfully was limiting the future development of the Prague Jewish community,” said Tomas Jelinek, the representative of the Jewish Community of the Czech Republic, in a news report. “There was criticism from the left and the right. [Sidon] was running the rabbinate in such a way that it would never have religious authority.”
Sidon disagreed. “Basically, I think this is about eliminating the chief rabbi and his post from a religious point of view and creating a situation where there is no rabbi and where only the community chairman has executive power,” he said in a news report. “I am convinced that my dismissal is about people grabbing power, and my role and my competence were standing in their way.”
Sidon, Prague’s first chief rabbi after communism, was born to a nonreligious Christian mother and Jewish father who died in Thereisenstadt. He became interested in Judaism during the 1968 Prague Spring and was converted in 1978. Prior to his conversion, Sidon worked as a dramatist and screenwriter and was widely known to the Czech public as an author and dissident. One of the signatories of Charter 77, the famous Czech human rights statement, Sidon was targeted by the communist secret police and left for Germany in 1983. He returned after the Velvet Revolution in 1990 and studied to become a rabbi in Jerusalem. He assumed his post in September 1992.
Not unlike his dissident days, his rabbinical service was fraught with controversy. Known for an aggressive Orthodox stance and his strong position on conversion, Sidon often ran afoul of this very small and highly assimilated community of 1,500 members, many of whom are elderly.
Nevertheless, many in the community’s older generation expressed outrage at Sidon’s removal, while younger members were busy circulating charges of misconduct.
Prague’s Jewish sites, preserved from destruction during World War II because of Hitler’s plans to make the former Jewish ghetto a Museum of an Extinct Race, host a treasure trove of Jewish ritual objects visited by more than a million visitors a year, and the Jewish Community — membership in which requires rabbinic approval — owns much highly lucrative property around the center of the city. The exact nature of the community’s real-estate holdings — properties returned to the community after the Communist period — and the disbursement of income from these assets are known only to the members of the official communal body, who are elected by their dwindling constituency of mostly elderly and infirm people.
A little while ago, rumors began circulating that Sidon entered into a power struggle with Jelinek regarding the management of these funds, and others, including one community member who requested anonymity, made reference to reports that six torahs went “missing.”
Although a prominent security officer in the community denied this “missing torah” charge, vouching for all torahs in the community’s possession, he added: “This is undoubtedly a power grab by Jelinek, an attempt to solidify his power over property. And he has to defame the rabbi in the process, any way he can.”
“There are always rumors,” said Alexander Fried, a prominent Czech Jew, and, like Sidon, a recipient of the Masaryk Prize from former President Vaclav Havel. “And each party has their own qualities. But this is a decision I cannot understand from a religious point of view.”
Barash’s appointment as chief rabbi of the Old-New Synagogue is more of an American-style pulpit position than it is a community role in the European tradition. Many think this is the perfect role for Barash, a strictly religious function that would allow the community to conduct its business affairs without rabbinic meddling. Furthermore, and supporting this idea in the minds of at least a few community members, the resolution dismissing Sidon allowed a two-year moratorium before the possible appointment of another chief rabbi.
“This is a great honor for me,” Barash said in an interview with the Forward an hour after accepting the position. “The Old-New Synagogue is a special place for me, for Jews everywhere, and I hope to involve more people in my activities here. This is a wonderful opportunity for growth. ”