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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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French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

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Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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