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Masorti rabbi to unveil the ‘magic’ of Prague

Scholar in residence to discuss Jewish life in Central Europe

 
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For the last 13 years, Rabbi Ron Hoffberg has been on a journey that was meant to last a week.

“There was an emergency situation,” he said. “They needed someone in Prague in a hurry, just for a week. That week turned into a year, and that year into 13.”

Hoffberg, spiritual leader of the Masorti (Conservative) community in the Czech Republic, has found that time both exciting and challenging. He will speak about his experiences — and the area he serves — when he visits the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel this weekend as scholar in residence.

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Rabbi Ron Hoffberg reflects on being the rabbi of the Masorti community in Prague.

Longtime spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Cranford, Hoffberg did a stint as scholar in residence at Caldwell’s Agudath Israel and as a full-time teacher at the Solomon Schechter Day School of West Orange before heading to Europe. He also ran the conversion institute for the Rabbinical Assembly in northern New Jersey.

Hoffberg, who visits the United States four times a year to make presentations at different synagogues, said that in Fair Lawn he will speak about the importance of supporting the rebuilding of Jewish life in Europe.

“People must know there’s a surviving Jewish community here, and it’s growing,” he said. “There will never again be the romanticized old Jewish Europe of our ghetto and shtetl ancestors, but there’s a growing Jewish population to visit, which is part of our Jewish world today.”

Hoffberg said that “much of what is Jewish in the U.S. came from Europe. We were entrusted with it while Europe was being destroyed. That’s why we have to help them rebuild. Jews have to survive everywhere.”

He serves not only the Masorti Jews of the Czech Republic but also those “for some miles around in different directions.” He said that his congregation consists of some 70 people, most between the ages of 25 and 35.

“This was a highly damaged community,” he said, citing the ravages of the Holocaust and the result of 40 years of communism. “Most of the survivors who stayed here were – as you can imagine – not interested in being so Jewish.”

Survivors of the Holocaust, living behind the Iron Curtain, “had kids who didn’t know they had a Jewish mother. They’re just now finding out.” As that generation ages and dies, he said, young people find Jewish items among their grandparents’ belongings — “and suddenly they’re Jews.”

“The revival is still beginning,” he said, noting that the Orthodox Prague Jewish Community — functioning as a kind of federation — is not open to those who suddenly discover their Jewish roots. As a result, “We’ve had a growth in the liberal movements.”

Still, he said, while the Orthodox community is led by a Jerusalem-trained Orthodox chief rabbi, “we have a good relationship with that community. They’ve given us the synagogue we use regularly. We’re not ‘the enemy.’”

Indeed, he said, to qualify for the Prague Jewish Community’s meals and cemetery plots, many of his members belong to that group as well.

Masorti services are held every Friday night, once a month on Shabbat morning, and on holidays. The rabbi said he has “learned enough Czech to function,” leading services in the language but delivering his sermons and teaching in English.

In addition to his regular members, Hoffberg also caters to visiting college students, many of whom are from the United States.

“We are open and accessible to them,” he said, pointing out that he invites them to services and special events. “We have 60 people at our seders.”

He also works as a guide, both for a large Jewish tour company and privately.

“I’m more than busy, but it’s a very exciting rabbinate,” he said. “I love college teaching” — he is a professor of Jewish history at Charles University in Prague — “and coming into contact with Jewish students from the States is fabulous.”

Hoffberg suggested that young Jews are drawn to the Masorti movement because “we’re very traditional, and Europe’s Judaism is traditional.” The country’s Reform movement, which has no local rabbis, “doesn’t look Jewish to many in Central Europe,” he said, while the Orthodox community is relatively closed. Young people exploring their newly discovered Jewish roots tell him they are not welcomed by the Orthodox community, nor are they invited to services or classes.

“They want to be Jewish but they don’t know what it looks like,” he said, noting that he gets phone calls once a week from such people and “there’s always a story.”

“The Orthodox are not easily accessible,” he said. “Czechs don’t react well to being pushed away.” Generally, he said, he has some 15 to 20 people in his conversion classes.

Hoffberg pointed out the major contributions of what was then Czechoslovakia to the creation of the State of Israel, particularly the efforts of its chief founder and first president, Thomas Masaryk. The atmosphere in today’s Czech Republic is “conducive” to the growth of the Jewish community, he said.

“At certain times of the year there are 10 flights a day to Israel. There’s a tremendous love for Israel” among both Jews and non-Jews.

In addition, there are thriving Jewish studies programs with no Jews in them, and “thousands of [non-Jewish] Czechs studying Talmud, Mishna, and Hebrew. You get people from the university who studied Talmud, and it’s mind-boggling what they know when they come for conversion classes.”

The rabbi said the Masorti movement is growing all over Europe, not just in the Czech Republic.

His feeling, he said, is that “a lot of these communities were originally Orthodox by default,” as Israel sent “all kinds of Orthodox rabbis to the diaspora.” Many, he said, have no knowledge of the communities to which they were sent, which does not sit well with the younger generation. “The Jewish population is interested in being Jewish, but they’re also interested in maintaining their nationality,” he said.

Hoffberg said his American audience needs to hear about the growth of the Masorti movement in Europe because “all the moping here about merging synagogues and shrinking demographics is not the story of the Conservative movement. It’s [just] the demographic situation at the present time in the United States. In Europe, we’re growing like crazy.

“Prague is bright on the Jewish travel horizon,” he said. “Many people visit, and if they don’t, they should. Outside of Israel, there is no other historically rich Jewish location that has the history preserved and accessible and a flourishing Jewish life. You can’t get that in Poland and most of Eastern Europe.”

FYI

Who: Rabbi Ron Hoffberg, who leads the Conservative/Masorti community in Prague

What: Will be scholar in residence

Where: At the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel

When: Friday and Saturday, May 17 and 18

Why: To describe the community there

How: His first presentation, set for tonight, will be on “The Magic of Jewish Prague.” On Saturday, he will speak during Shabbat services on “Czech Files: Jews Returning to Judaism.” Following a kiddush luncheon at noon, he will explore “Jews in Central Europe – Legacies of the Past and a Look at the Present and Future,” followed at 1:45 p.m. by an advanced study session on “The Maharal of Prague.”

Pre-registration: Is required for the Saturday luncheon and study session.

For more information or to register: (201) 796-5040 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
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Pruzansky vs. Matanky

Rabbi’s Nazi analogy draws fire

The president of the Rabbinical Council of American, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, has weighed in on the ongoing dispute between Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck and Gary Rosenblatt of Teaneck, editor and publisher of New York’s Jewish Week.

“I am pained that I have to distance myself from a colleague, but the kind of language that Rabbi Pruzansky used is unacceptable and crosses the line of decency and discourse,” Rabbi Matanky is quoted in the Jewish Week as having written. (Rabbi Matanky lives in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood — which is more or less the Teaneck of the Midwest — where he is rabbi of Congregations K.I.N.S. and dean of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy.)

 

Reality check

Author to discuss intergenerational ‘experiment’

Katie Hafner began her professional career writing for a small newspaper in Lake Tahoe.

That didn’t last for long, though. “I worked my way up,” said Ms. Hafner, who now writes on health care for the New York Times.

A seasoned journalist, Ms. Hafner was exceptionally well prepared to chronicle an experience in her own life that she calls both an “experiment in intergenerational living” and a “disaster.” Inviting her 77-year-old mother to live with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in San Francisco, Ms. Hafner learned that fairy-tale imaginings are no match for emotional truths.

(In her book, Ms. Hafner calls her mother Helen. That is not her real name; her mother requested anonymity, and Ms. Hafner honored the request.)

 

Self-defense or unnecessary danger?

Armed self-defense is a value strongly supported in Jewish law, according to a statement issued last week by a local Jewish gun club, which is urging two of the largest Orthodox organizations in the country to reconsider their positions on gun control.

On July 16, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing Orthodox rabbis in the United States, issued a statement recognizing the rights of private citizens to own weapons and engage in violence for self-defense, but also calling for the restriction of “easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition,” and denounced “recreational activities that desensitize participants … or glorify war, killing, physical violence, and weapons….”

The RCA resolution came just over a year after the Orthodox Union issued a similar resolution citing its longtime commitment to “common sense gun safety legislation” and calling on U.S. senators to pass legislation to ensure “a safer and more secure American society.”

 

RECENTLYADDED

NCJW immigration panel decries “broken system”

Participants praise President Obama’s executive action

President Obama’s recent speech on immigration — and his decision not to deport some 5 million people — most likely was driven, at least in part, by the advocacy efforts of groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Bergen County section, which held a forum on immigration reform last Tuesday, was in the process of sending a letter to the president when his formal statement was issued.

“It was a packed house,” Bea Podorefsky of Teaneck said of the forum, which drew 300 attendees. She and fellow NCJW member Joyce Kalman chaired the event.

“We prepared a letter for attendees to sign urging the president to take some action,” she said, joking that one of the program’s panelists, Rabbi Greg Litcovsky, said she must have had a “connection” to a higher power, given the president’s subsequent action.

Ms. Podorefsky said that the forum’s goals were “to educate ourselves, to educate the community at large, and to work together with our coalition partners.” The coalition, created around last year’s NCJW forum on human trafficking, consists of 24 organizations, ranging from Project Sarah to the Palisades Park Senior Center.

 

Surviving the Holocaust, living to 102

Family, friends remember the indomitable Helen Fellowes

No one survived the Shoah without a story.

No one survived the Shoah without some luck.

No one lives to be 102 years old without both luck and a story.

Helen Fellowes of Ridgewood, who died on November 3 at 102, took advantage of some lucky breaks, and she had very many stories.

Here’s one:

Ms. Fellowes’ husband, Donald, was reunited with their two children, Martha and George, after the war, but he could not find his wife. He had no idea if she had survived. “We waited in Budapest for my mother to return, but she did not, so we went back to Nagyvarad,” the small Hungarian town where they had lived together long ago, before their part of the world went crazy, George Fellowes said.

 

Love and hate in Teaneck

Writing a blog post in response to the bloody, brutal, and unprecedented murder of four Jews at prayer in Jerusalem and the Druze police officer who tried to protect them on November 18, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck has set off a firestorm.

Rabbi Pruzansky is a lawyer and a vivid writer whose political views are out of the mainstream. In “Dealing With Savages,” the post he put up last Friday and had taken down by Sunday, he urged collective punishment.

Rabbi Pruzansky’s blog is at rabbipruzansky.com. Although this post has been removed it has been cached. The post was removed, he told the wire service JTA, in response to unspecified threats, not because he regretted anything he had written. “I don’t think I’m saying anything outlandish,” JTA reported Rabbi Pruzansky as saying.

 
 
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