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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meet Rabbi Karol Sidon Hamodia 2010

Meet Rabbi Karol Sidon
Chief Rabbi of Czechoslovakia and Prague
By Debbie Shapiro


My husband and I literally flew out of the Prague Airport's international terminal and jumped into a waiting taxi. We had just arrived from Israel less than twenty minutes ago and were on our way to Josefov, the old Jewish quarter of Prague, where we were to meet with Rabbi Karol Sidon, Czechoslovakia's Chief Rabbi. END LEAD

Throughout the twenty minute ride from the airport to the city, I stared out the window in fascination at the pristine beauty of this snow-covered wonderland. This was so different from Eretz Yisrael! As we approached the city, we passed rows of tall, narrow, very European-looking pastel colored buildings that were interspersed with huge identical gray apartment buildings, obviously products of the Communist era. As we drove down the curvy road leading into the old city, I noticed an imposing ancient structure to our left. The driver explained that it was the famous Prague Castle, one of the biggest castles in the world, which today houses several museums.

As we drove into Josefov, I felt as if we were entering a veritable fairytale land of quaint cobblestone streets, sloping red tiled roofs, pale green metal fences, and tall pastel colored buildings crowded on top of each other. The driver let us off in front of the Jewish Kehillah building, where two guards checked our passports and politely informed us that we were not allowed to enter. "But I'm from Hamodia," I explained. "And Rav Sidon, the Chief Rabbi of Czechoslovakia, is expecting us." After a few minutes of quiet consultation, the guards opened the heavy front door and led us into a small vestibule where the receptionist grilled us as to our reason for wanting to speak with the Rabbi. After a flurry of telephone calls and hushed consultations, we were informed that the rabbi will be available in another forty-five minutes. We decided to take advantage of the time to begin exploring the area around the Kehillah building.  

Twenty-five minutes later, an elderly man, out of breath from exertion, rushed over to where we were standing taking pictures of sign above a synagogue door, and introduced himself as Rabbiner Sidon. Back in the Kehillah building, he led us up the wide, elegant staircase to his office on the second floor. The architecture was stunning. We later learned that this building was constructed in the late sixteenth century, and that it was in use during the times of the Maharal.

Rabbi Sidon was far from being pretentious. Despite the grandeur of his surroundings, he succeeded in making me feel completely at home.

Hamodia: Rabbi Sidon, I understand that in 1991 the Czechoslovakia Jewish Community appointed you as Chief Rabbi. This was just four years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the region's political climate was far from stable. What was the community like then, and how has it changed?

Rabbi Sidon: When I came here, there were, at most, 800 Jews in all of Czechoslovakia, and most of them were quite elderly – the average age was over eighty. Today there are 1800 Jews, with an average age of fifty. Although the Jews of Czechoslovakia are, for the most part, far from being religious, they are deeply connected to their Jewish roots, which means that this is a community that has tremendous potential for spiritual growth.

That's why I'm here – to give these Jewish neshamos the opportunity to return to their roots through creating a functioning, vibrant Kehillah. My focus is on the younger generation; they are our future. Baruch Hashem, we've established a Jewish elementary school and a Jewish Secondary school. Although the schools are not yet completely Orthodox, they strengthen Jewish identity, which is the first step to returning to a life of Torah and mitzvos.

Hamodia: What about a religious infrastructure?

Rabbi Sidon: Although we don't have our own bais din, every so often a group of rabbanim comes from Eretz Yisrael to convene one for conversion and divorce. As far as kosher food is concerned, until recently we had our own shechitah, but now we've encountered a lot of problems – the last time we slaughtered locally, only three out of ten cows were kosher – so we've begun importing our meat from Poland. Kosher food is available; we even have our own little kosher shop here in the Kehillah building. They stock almost everything, from crackers to chalav Yisrael cheese.

Hamodia: With one thousand Jews and an existing infrastructure, there's definitely an opportunity for growth. But is there an existing Orthodox community?

Rabbi Sidon: Here in Prague we have a small nucleus of about eighty young people, most of them in their early thirties, who are shomrei Torah and mitzvos. Baruch Hashem, many of them are married with young families; if you were to visit our shul on a Yom Tov, you'd find at least a hundred people davening there. For me, this is a source of tremendous joy; it's the reason I entered the rabbinate.

When we opened our school fifteen years ago, we had just six children. The old-timers told me that I was crazy, that there are no more Jewish children left. But we proved them wrong; the nursery school is so big that it has two classes, and one hundred children are enrolled in our school.

When we first moved here, there was not a single mikveh teharah in the entire country.  Later, when the Vaad HaKehillah built one, we were the only family to take advantage of it. But today, baruch Hashem, things are different and many young families use the mikveh on a regular basis.

Any community facility – for example a mikveh or a Jewish day school – has to exist before anyone can use it. I compare it to a faucet; one can only open a faucet to get water if the faucet exists.  The faucet, however, is only a channel to access the brachah. Our school is similar to a faucet; it's a channel to reach these children. 

Hamodia: It sounds as if the school is your pride and joy.

Rabbi Sidon: Yes it is. It's very precious to me — my diamond – the future of my city. But at the same time, most of Prague's Jews are elderly Holocaust survivors. Since a large percentage of them are destitute, it's become the Kehillah's responsibility to take care of them. We provide them with medical care, subsidized meals and assistance in the home. Every day approximately one hundred Jews come to the Kehillah's building, right here where you are interviewing me, for a hot lunch at our subsidized kosher restaurant, which, by the way, is on an international standard and frequented by tourists -- but of course they pay the full rate.

Hamodia: Who supports the Kehillah's activities?

Rabbi Sidon: In most kehillos, the members of the community support the Kehillah. Prague, however, is different. Under the Communists, the Kehillah was supported by the government. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the value of the Kehillah buildings rose tremendously and they became worth a small fortune. They consist of prime real estate of infinite historical value in Josefov, Prague's Jewish quarter. Prague's Jewish museum rents out several of our buildings, and the revenue supports our activities.

Hamodia: It must be very difficult to live so far from an Orthodox Jewish center. How do you recharge your own spiritual batteries?

Rabbi Sidon: Once a year I spend a week in Eretz Yisrael. It gives me chizuk to see other frum people. (Rabbi Sidon laughs ruefully) Even a rav needs chizuk. Although at times I would like to leave Prague and move to a normal Jewish community, I can't. If I leave, everything would disintegrate.  I am, however, getting older and am looking for a younger person to take over my position.  Each person has his own capabilities. I did what I could, but there is so much more to be done. The community needs someone younger, someone with more energy.

Hamodia: You mentioned that there is a community of about eighty young baalei teshuvah and geirim living here. Where did they learn about Yiddishkeit?

Rabbi Sidon: We have a Midrasha with shiurim in the evening. Every night, you'll find a minyan or so of young people there, exploring their heritage. There's a wide variety of classes; I teach a class on the foundations of halachah. It's because I understand where these young people came from that I am able to relate to them. 

Hamodia: Could you expand on that?

Rabbi Sidon: I converted to Judaism in 1978, when I was thirty-six years old. Although I grew up believing that I was Jewish, my mother was a gentile, which meant, of course, that I wasn't.
I grew up in Czechoslovakia. In 1944, when I was just two years old, my father was deported to Thereisenstadt, where he died. Two years later, in 1946, my mother remarried. Her second husband was also Jewish — although he knew absolutely nothing about Yiddishkeit.
So although I did not grow up religious, I grew up with a strong sense of Jewish identity.  As a child, I would often think about my late father, and in a way, I almost idolized him. In my imagination he become bigger than life, a mythical figure who symbolized pure goodness. I understood that there is something greater than myself, and eventually I realized that that "something" is Hashem.
Before becoming religious, I was a very successful journalist and playwright. I wrote for the official Czech paper, mainly against the Soviet regime. I was exiled from Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Soviets overran the country and squelched all democratic leanings. I could either follow my conscience – live according to emes – and suffer physically, or live a lie and be comfortable. My father's example – he was a Jew who died for his beliefs – compelled me do what was right, which meant being exiled from my country. It was far from easy.

As a result of that experience, I came to understand that a person is not just a guf, a body, but that each of us has within ourselves a neshamah, a spark of the divine, which craves emes. It was that neshamah that gave me the courage to go against the tide and fight for what is right. Later on, it opened the door to my becoming religious.

In 1978, I was finally allowed to return to Prague and began attending the small Orthodox minyan in the historical Alteneu Shul. In those days, attending shul was an act of mesirus nefesh; one might be called in for an interrogation, and one's children would be denied access to a higher education. For this reason, the Yidden tended to distance themselves from the Kehillah, and for many, this mindset still exists today.

It was during these difficult times that I began studying Torah. My main teacher was a tremendous talmid chacham from Satmar, Hungary; another teacher was from Slovakia. They had studied in the great pre-war yeshivos. After the war, they ended up stranded in Prague. Although it was extremely dangerous for them to teach me, they did. Eventually, they convened a bais din and converted me.

In 1983, I traveled to West Germany to attend Heidelberg's College of Jewish Studies. After six years I graduated with a teacher's degree. Although the classes were on a high academic level, it was far below that of a yeshivah bachur whose entire life is devoted to Torah. I continued my studies at Machon Ariel in Jerusalem. Three years later, I was an ordained rabbi and felt sufficiently knowledgeable to return to Prague to serve the Jews of my hometown.

During our phone calls prior to our meeting, Rabbi Sidon was adamant that the interview focus on the community, rather than on his personal spiritual journey. But as I listened to him speak, I realized that the two are intertwined. It was thanks to his personal odyssey that he has the unique ability to understand the challenges facing his community.

At the conclusion of this interview, Rabbi Sidon took us on a tour of the Kehillah building. He showed us the magnificent synagogue, which dates back to the seventeenth century, Prague's kosher market and the community lunchroom, where dozens of elderly residents eat a delicious, subsidized kosher lunch.

The same guard who had seemed so severe and stern when we first entered the Kehillah building now smiled warmly as he opened the door for us to leave. Outside, we were greeted by a sharp, cold blast of wind that that almost took our breath away. But after hearing of all the Kehillah's many chessed projects, the cold didn't bother us that much. 


  1. Just come back from a weekend in Prague, and was curious to learn more about the Rabbi. Fascinating interview. Thank you

  2. The text contains several mistakes. To mention
    "1991 .... four years after the fall of the Iron Curtain"? Communism failed in Czechoslovakia in November 1989, so 1991 was two and not four years since that event.

    I am nearly convinced that Sidon was not exiled from Czechoslovakia in 1968 so he didn't return in 1978. Besides that in 1977 he signed the Charta 77 which led to him to be thrown out of the country (operation Spider) in (if I am not mistaken) 1983.

    The entire description of the Jewish life in Communist Czechoslovakia is based on rav Sidon's experience after my departure in 1968. As he admits, he became active in these circles much later.

    From the interview is not obvious that among the super orthodox is a sizable number of full convertees. The Czech Jewry, especially in Prague, was historically not orthodox. The orthodox members represent a tiny minority of the kehilah membership.

    The Lauder schools are a huge achievemnt of rav Sidon but exist also thanks to the fact that many students are non-Jewish, reaching the number of students that allows the school to exist.

    Rav Sidon didn't mention the existence of the Habad group and newly now exists an orthodox Spharadi one. Not mentioning existence of reform groups.

    The ten Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic are basically financed from two sources : state subsides and gifts from the Jewish Museum in Prague, which does not belong to Jewish community structures. At present started the "restitution process" which would phase out the state support while paying religious organizations a lump sum to cover for the lost (nationalized) property by the Communists.

    I understand that Hamodia is a periodical of the orthodox community and therefore the Jewish Prague is presented the way the inteview does it. But the real kehilah life i Prague is a bit different and turns around a bit different values and problems.