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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Jewish Power Struggle Stirs Passion in Prague


By JOSHUA COHEN

February 4, 2005

PRAGUE ? An ugly struggle for control of the Prague Jewish community ended
officially late last month when the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities
recognized a loose-knit opposition group as the legitimate steward of one
of Europe's oldest Jewish communities.
In fact, however, the fight goes on despite the January 20 decision. The
ousted community president, Tomas Jelinek, is vowing to continue the
bruising power struggle that has divided the tiny, 1,500-member community
since last spring.
A district court issued an injunction in early January, giving the
250-member Open Platform the right to occupy community headquarters, but
Jelinek has vowed to appeal and refuses to vacate.
The dispute is a combustible mix of religion, prestige and money. The
president oversees the religious and communal affairs of a tiny community
of mostly elderly Shoa survivors and 20- and 30-something post-communist
converts. The community is best known for its museum and the medieval
Old-New Synagogue, Europe's oldest functioning synagogue and home of
revered 16th-century sage Rabbi Judah Loew and his mythical golem. Perhaps
most significant, however, the president controls the community's
extensive real estate holdings, including millions of dollars in
restituted prewar properties in downtown Prague.
The fracas began last spring when Jelinek, a onetime economic adviser to
former Czech president Vaclav Havel, won election with the backing of a
group of mostly secular Jews. His platform called for construction of a
modern senior-care facility, greater financial transparency and an easing
of the strictly Orthodox religious policies of Prague's chief rabbi, Karol
Sidon.
In June, Jelinek moved to dismiss Sidon as rabbi of the Old-New Synagogue
and replace him with a New York-born Lubavitch rabbi, Manis Barash, head
of Prague's Chabad center. Jelinek accused Sidon, a former dissident and
playwright, of incompetence and mismanagement. Previously, Jelinek had
fired the principal of the main educational facility, Lauder Javne School.
Sidon's allies struck back at a November 7 community meeting, winning
Jelinek's ouster in a raucous scene of shouting and threats ? including
cries of, "You should have stayed in Terezin" ? at the height of which
Jelinek and his followers stalked out. Since then, the two sides have
faced off in a series of legal and media battles.
Sidon still holds the position of chief rabbi of the Czech lands, and as
such he had considerable influence over the January 20 ouster of Jelinek
by the national federation. His support is such that in a community barely
able to sustain one morning minyan outside the tourist season, Sidon's
followers ? including prominent journalist Jiri Danicek and Jewish Museum
head Leo Pavlat ? have broken away and formed their own synagogue in
protest.
Over the months the sides have aired a series of wild and mostly
unsubstantiated charges in the media. Jelinek's camp charged Sidon with
misplacing Torah scrolls that never were misplaced, and accused the Lauder
principal of having pornography on a computer, which turned out to be
someone else's. Jelinek's foes accused him of passing personal information
on community members to international consulting firm Ernst & Young, and
of filtering his often outrageous allegations through the public relations
firm Donat, whose local branch is headed by a former member of the
communist-era secret police.
Jelinek said that Ernst & Young had been hired to conduct an audit of
community finances, which he said had been mismanaged. His opponents
accuse him of wildly overspending on the audit and on other expenses.
The accusations have been accompanied by endless legal and procedural
maneuvers, including a mail-in ballot, organized by Jelinek but later
ruled in violation of bylaws.
"Almost everyone who works there is either a communist or a criminal ?
they need to be on someone's side" former rabbinate official Ivo Hribek
said.
A new election is planned for April, and Jelinek has vowed to run again,
all but guaranteeing continued acrimony.
"I won the elections last April and the old guard just can't stand it and
is trying anything possible to ruin me, which in turn is disgracing the
community," Jelinek told reporters recently. "It's very unfortunate."

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