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Prague Chief Rabbi Quits Amid Literary Sensation — and Whiff of Scandal

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 16:13

When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

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Prague’s longtime chief rabbi leaves colorful and controversial legacy

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 14:57

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague’s chief rabbi amid reports about his love life. (Petr Balajka/Prague Jewish Community)

PRAGUE (JTA) — When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores this March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.

Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.

“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.

“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago and it will happen sooner or later.”

But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.

His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.

Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. 

The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.

“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”

But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.

The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intracommunal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.

In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined JTA’s interview requests.

Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.

Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.

Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, told JTA that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.

Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.

Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.

Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.

“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”

Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.

Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.

“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”

Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.

In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.

“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, told JTA in an email.

Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

Eventually the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. 

By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek who was elected community chairman in 2001.

In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.

“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek told JTA.

Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.

Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.

A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.

Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.

Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.

The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.

Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. 

But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, told JTA that Sidon himself offered to step down.

“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.

Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.

During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur, a machzor and others. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.

“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”

But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.

“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.

Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.

“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”

Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 09:00

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Dr. Paula Sayag

As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, I had the privilege of interacting with Jewish educators on a national scale, learning about trends in Jewish communal involvement, and helping congregations respond to large-scale concerns. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity to put into practice the advice I was offering other educators – or, more importantly, to build close relationships with the families that educators serve. So I decided to become a school director.

I started working at the early childhood center in Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was the first time in 20 years that classes weren’t filled. It was challenging to learn the ins-and-outs of a new community, gain their trust, and begin to envision the future for a school with decreased enrollment, a declining economy, a reduced budget, and changing neighborhood demographics.

In those first four years, we made several positive changes. I felt more assured of where I was leading the school, but I worried incessantly about enrollment and how to maintain staff. I still lacked the opportunity for connections with the broader community of Jewish educators, and I wondered what others were doing. Did they face similar challenges? Did anyone have innovative solutions?

When a colleague encouraged me to join the URJ’s Pursuing Excellence in Early Childhood Education Community of Practice, I jumped at the chance to learn with a select group of colleagues working in Reform congregations all around North America, all of whom were keen about undergoing a change process with their Early Childhood Centers. This would allow me to accurately assess our situation, uncover options, and find the best people to share in problem-solving.

In order to participate, our congregation was required create a leadership team, which was made up of a few volunteers. None of us was sure what we were getting into, but off we went. At the inaugural gathering, URJ Faculty Member Cathy Rolland and her cadre of change experts convinced us that we had to consider using new tools to face threats to Jewish early childhood education and to carefully and creatively tackle an experiment that could lead to effective change. To use a term coined by Rabbi Benay Lappe, could we practice “disruptive innovation”?

Our leadership team was both inspired and overwhelmed, and we stayed up nights contemplating the options. One colleague, who initially didn’t understand any of the issues, gained a sincere appreciation for the role that early childhood plays in the larger question of Jewish engagement. Another, who hadn’t been exposed to the national Jewish early childhood scene, was awed by the depth and breadth of talent.

We came home from our time with the Community of Practice committed to carrying out an experiment that we had previously contemplated but hesitated to conduct: offering families full-day programming. Our congregation had more dual-income families than ever, and they couldn’t participate in a part-day program. We knew full-day programming was a vital option.

The most powerful step our team took was choosing to meet monthly. These regular meetings, which were never cancelled and fully attended, made our experience successful. At each meeting, we reviewed logistical tasks and pondered the bigger picture – our mission and vision, culture, staff and parent needs and priorities, financial and political limitations, etc. We watched URJ webinars together and learned from other participants in the Community of Practice, while our board members met with teachers and parents to hear their perspectives. Every team meeting was invaluable and led to new ideas.

Ultimately, we partnered with an outside agency to provide an aftercare program in our building. We still operate a part-day program (though our hours are still longer than they ever were before), maintaining the culture and the staff that we cultivated over 25 years, but we can now accommodate our busy families by providing full-time child care. We use the tag line, “Your child’s best school experience, and your best childcare solution.”

We often said our experiment had “tentacles.” Not only did we implement full-day child care in a unique way, but we created inter-generational programming, further engaged the clergy in our school, re-educated the board, planned our second experiment, and so much more.

The URJ’s Community of Practice structure gave us tools to enthusiastically tackle change. It also offered the support of the URJ faculty and the opportunity to share the experience with colleagues in other cities who were experimenting at the same time. Our school and our team benefited so much from this experience that our board members have agreed to continue meeting monthly to see where our newfound skills and understanding can lead.

Eighteen months after beginning this journey, we are more knowledgeable and less scared of change. Our school is thriving, with more students and greater vibrancy than we have had since 2009. Our team, following intense discussion, titled our experiment “Accommodating Busy Families” because it’s about much more than full-day programming or enrollment statistics. Every aspect of our program is now evaluated through the lens of our families’ realities and facilitating their relationships within the Jewish community.

My favorite take-away from this experience? “Excellence is the pursuit of excellence.” We can’t stop improving.

Dr. Paula Sayag is the early childhood director at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD. Prior to this, she served as an early childhood Consultant at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

Sim Shalom Online Synagogue Hosts Live Jazzed Up High Holiday Services...

Mon, 08/25/2014 - 01:42

The Sim Shalom Online Synagogue continues to layer deep tradition with musical virtuosity, and this year will hold its Jazz High Holiday Services at Zeb’s Sound and Light in Chelsea.

(PRWeb July 24, 2014)

Read the full story at http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/06/prweb11926117.htm

200 Hollywood Elite Condemn Hamas in Statement

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 11:45

Nearly 200 Hollywood elite from actors to directors to studio heads has signed a statement condemning Hamas, as its conflict with Israel continues.

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A Burning Memory of Utah

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 06:00

When a synagogue in Ogden, Utah was damaged by arson fires, the city’s Jewish community received some unexpected help from its Mormon neighbors.

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The Prince and Princess of Jewish Music Find New Love

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 06:00

Once upon a time, the prince and princess of Jewish music were adored by their fans — but something was missing. Then Nechama Carlebach and Josh Nelson found each other.

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When We Marched Together in Selma

Sat, 08/23/2014 - 16:28

With the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together African Americans, Jews and others for progressive change.

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Pro-Israel Groups Slam Attack on Philadelphia College Student

Sat, 08/23/2014 - 08:17

An assortment of pro-Israel groups has issued a joint statement deploring the attack on a Jewish student at Temple University. It also criticized a pro-Palestinian campus organization, and urged universities to monitor it and other likeminded groups.

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Training Delivery Trends Every Leader Must Know

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 19:33
What’s hot in online education delivery methods, and why your organization can’t ignore any of them. Learners keep raising the bar on what they expect in terms of education. It seems anything can drive the need to expand and elevate what you offer them. It might be availability (can they take the course in the […]

Pro-Israel groups condemn attack on Temple student

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 15:37

(JTA) — An assortment of pro-Israel groups has issued a joint statement deploring the attack on a Jewish student at Temple University. It also criticized a pro-Palestinian campus organization, and urged universities to monitor it and other likeminded groups.

In a statement released today, 12 organizations, including StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA), condemned the incident in which a Temple student, Daniel Vessal, was struck. Vessal, a fellow with CAMERA, was hit in the face by person at an informational booth for the group Students for Justice in Palestine. Students at the booth, set up at a campus fair Wednesday, also allegedly shouted anti-Semitic slurs at Vessal.

SJP issued a statement condemning the attack and denying that the assailant was a member of SJP. The statement also denied that any anti-Semitic slurs were used.

In their statement, the pro-Israel groups alleged that SJP “has a proven track record of intimidation, harassment, and incitement merging into anti-Semitism against Israel and its supporters on campus.” The organizations urged that SJP and groups like it be closely monitored.

They also called on Temple University to condemn the attack. Temple issued such a statement yesterday.

Met Council Considering Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener as CEO Replacement

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 13:44

The Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty is considering hiring Rabbi Moshe Wiener, the ultra-Orthodox head of the JCC of Greater Coney Island, to replace departing CEO David Frankel.

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Ashdod Synagogue Hit By Rocket From Gaza, 3 Injured

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 11:27

An Ashdod synagogue was hit by a rocket Friday afternoon, injuring three people lightly.

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Boy killed by rocket fire; synagogue struck, injuring 3

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 10:06

(JTA) – Scores of rockets were fired at Israel Friday, one mortally wounding a child in Sha’ar HaNegev, and another lightly injuring three people at an Ashdod synagogue. 

The Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council announced the boy’s death. News reports have said that he was 4.

Earlier in the day heavy rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel moderately wounded another Israeli in Beersheva, Haaretz reported.

Two men in their 20s and a woman in her 40s were injured by shrapnel from the Ashdod rocket. All three were taken to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.

A senior medic told Haaretz that the rocket damaged the synagogue. “There was a great commotion and many hysterical frightened people,” the medic added.

In Gaza, Hamas reportedly killed 18 Palestinians suspected of being Israeli collaborators on Friday. Seven were reportedly shot in a public execution outside, and another 11 were executed at the Gaza City police headquarters.

Jewish Student at Temple University Punched At Pro-Palestinian Group's Booth

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 13:26

A Jewish student at Temple University was punched in the face by someone manning an informational booth for Students for Justice in Palestine.

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Driven by Faith to Help Children of Ghana by Sam Pinczuk

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 12:35

Every day, Edem Richard Adjordor drives throughout Ghana’s Volta region to assist poor families and to rescue children from slavery and abuse. He offers services ranging from medical supplies and health education to providing children with a safe place to live, learn, and grow. Edem is executive director of HardtHaven Children’s Home in Kpando, established in 2007 by Joy Ann Hardt, a registered nurse and American volunteer. The small home cares for orphans and vulnerable children, specifically victims of HIV/AIDS and other serious illnesses. HardtHaven is a project of UNiTED, a nonprofit community resource and empowerment center also directed by Edem and dedicated to “unifying neighbors through education and development.”

Click on each picture in the gallery below for a full-screen image and a brief caption.

The post Driven by Faith to Help Children of Ghana by Sam Pinczuk appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Temple U. Jewish student punched at pro-Palestinian group’s booth

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 12:02

(JTA) — A Jewish student at Temple University was punched in the face by someone at an informational booth for Students for Justice in Palestine.

The pro-Palestinian group condemned Wednesday’s assault of Daniel Vessal and said the assailant was neither a student nor a member of the group, according to the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia.

Vessal approached the booth during a campus fair and allegedly was punched following a verbal exchange that included anti-Semitic slurs, the weekly reported. Vessal was taken to the hospital and subsequently released.

He is a member of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and a fellow with CAMERA, a pro-Israel media watchdog.

The Temple Hillel expressed “outrage” over the incident. Its director, Phil Nordlinger, told the Exponent that police did not arrest the assailant.

Temple’s Students for Justice in Palestine condemned the incident, “just as we condemn the violence that is committed against Palestinians by the state of Israel on a daily basis.”

However, it also asserted that Vessal had “harassed” its members, calling them “terrorists” and “Hamas.”


I Smuggled a Shul From Sweden to Israel

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 06:00

Suppose you want to ship a synagogue from Sweden to Israel. It’s 1991 and the lack of a free trade agreement means paying high import duties. What do you do?

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Miami Jews Fret Over Security After Rabbi’s Murder

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 13:21

The streets of North Miami Beach look different since the murder of Rabbi Joseph Raksin.

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Man Wrongly Convicted of New York City Rabbi's Murder Gets $10M Settlement

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 10:42

A man who was wrongly convicted of the 1994 murder of a New York City rabbi and spent 16 years in prison received a $10 million settlement from the city.

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