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.
|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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.