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A Convert Becomes Rabbi and Leads Jewish Community in Prague

By: Diana Lerner

Rabbi Not during the years of growing up as a Christian in a small Czech province in which his family had lived for generations, nor later when he achieved acclaim as an author and social critic did Karol Sidon dream he would one day be attracted to Judaism and abandon his Christian heritage. Certainly, he never imagined he would convert and become a Judaic scholar, let along a rabbi and the spiritual head of the Prague Jewish community. Today, while others may despair of Jewish continuity in the country, torn by political upheavals and divided by social conditions, Sidon, known as Rabbi Efrayim is vigorously attacking his responsibilities to rebuild a Jewish community.

In the four years since assuming his post, Rabbi Efrayim has won the respect of Jews and non Jews alike for his scholarship and integrity. A graduate of a rabbinic seminary in Jerusalem after six years of study in Heidelberg, Germany, where he earned a teacher's license, Rabbi Efrayim is a recognized Jewish scholar.

The alt-neu shul where he leads a congregation of local Jews and visitors, is a well known tourist attraction from which point tours of Jewish sites are conducted to the Jewish cemetery nearby, the Jewish museum, as well as a day trip to Tierenstadt.

When he came, Rabbi Efrayim recognized the potential for rebuilding the community and together with his wife, also a convert, now conducts a school for a handful of kindergartners and a small Hebrew school. There are 1,300 registered members of the Jewish community and many others who are not officially affiliated but attend high holiday services or ask for rabbinic help on special occasions such as births, the name of a Jewish child, bar mitzvahs, weddings or burials.

On Sabbaths and holidays, the synagogue is filled with tourists, its ancient walls a testimony to the rich Jewish past. A Kosher restaurant caters to the visitors as well as residents and is conducted by an Israeli couple. Here, meals are served daily for the community's elderly Jews for a token payment; the rest is subsidized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

We are very much dependent on political developments, Rabbi Efrayim observes. Following the war, few Jews were left but gradually some returned to reclaim property and resume living here. On this count, the government has cooperated, allowing Jews in to reclaim property; it has restored the neglected Jewish cemetery and returned the Jewish museum to the Jewish community with all its treasures, as well. The alt-neu shul remains an important landmark and a shopping place for any group of visitors to the city, Jew and non-Jew, alike.

As a member of the Czech P.E.N. club, Rabbi Efrayim invites a recent P.E.N. congress to convene here, and some of the famous Jewish writers were guests at services. President Vaclav Havel has made a point of visiting the synagogue alone, and with important State visitors.

Jewish businessmen have been encouraged to invest here. One of the most successful entrepreneurs is an Israeli who opened a chain of sportswear shops and now has almost 100 Himisjeans stores across the country. There is no Kosher butcher, but Kosher meat comes from Germany; and an East Slovakia kosher food store enables shoppers to obtain Kosher products.

As an illustration of government cooperation with Jewish projects is the introduction of holocaust studies in the high school curriculum explaining what happened to the Jews of the country. Israeli author of From Kolin to Jerusalem, Hanna Greenfied, born in Kolin, Czechoslovakia, who lectures and conducts holocaust studies at Yad Vashem has initiated an essay contest in the high school, on the holocaust theme, at which three prizes are awarded for outstanding papers.

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