In a sign of how divisive the “Who is a Jew” question can become, the first non-Orthodox conversions in nearly 40 years took place between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur in the Czech Republic and Poland in the face of fierce Orthodox opposition.
Because the Orthodox in both countries would not permit the use of their ritual baths, the 38 conversions had to be moved to outlying cities.
Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, said he finds it particularly galling that the Orthodox-controlled Jewish community organization in Prague, known as the Ovitz, is denying the converts recognition as Jews. As a result, they cannot buy kosher meat because the Ovitz imports it and restricts its sale to members of the Jewish community.
“I find it unbelievable that the rabbi is prohibiting Jews from buying kosher meat,” Rabbi Sacks said in a phone interview from Spain.
Only members of the Jewish community are permitted by the Ovitz to buy parchment for mezuzahs and are allowed to benefit from the community’s health plan and retirement home.
But Rabbi Sacks said these and other obstacles did not deter any converts.
The Conservative movement’s Masorti Ben Din (rabbinical court) conducted the conversions after each candidate had received at least a year of serious study and had participated in the Jewish communities of their hometown. Rabbi Sacks said that about 80 percent of them had Jewish roots.
Ironically, Prague’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, who has a decisive voice in the conversion issue, is himself an (Orthodox) convert to Judaism.
One of the converts, Radka Uhrova, 24, of Prague told The Jewish Week she has no Jewish relatives but has long been interested in Judaism. In fact, she spent six months in Israel two years ago studying at a Modern Orthodox institution.
“The more I learned of Judaism, the more I felt that was the way I think,” she said. “I don’t think my parents understand why I did it. The general feeling in the Czech Republic is that religion is made up by people. Nobody has a religion here.”
Asked about the obstacles she will face not being recognized as a Jew by the Prague Orthodox community, Uhrova said she has friends who can get her kosher meat, that she has her own health plan and has a long time before considering retirement.
“It’s all politics,” she said of the Ovitz’s refusal to recognize non-Orthodox conversions. “I don’t know the reasons behind it, but I’m glad we have other choices.”
Because she is planning to marry and have children, Uhrova said she is considering having an Orthodox conversion too so that her children would be recognized as a Jew by everyone.
Jacob Labendz, an American who has lived in Prague a year, said the Orthodox community does some conversions but that the course of study demanded can take up to eight years.
“It certainly discourages people and its conversions are to a very strict form of orthodoxy,” he said in a phone interview from Prague. “That is not what those coming to Masorti want. They want modern but traditional and law observant.”
Labendz estimated that there are about 200 members of the Masorti and Liberal or Reform movements in Prague, along with about 1,600 Orthodox.
“I’m pretty sure that other communities, despite what the Orthodox rabbinate in Prague tells them, would consider [non-Orthodox converts] Jewish,” he said.
The catalyst for much of that change to come is Rabbi Ronald Hoffberg, who came to Prague a year ago as a representative of the Masorti movement in the Czech Republic.
Rabbi Hoffberg conducted the conversion classes and said there are another half-dozen or so conversion students still studying with him.
Asked about the lack of recognition of the converts by the Orthodox, Rabbi Hoffberg noted that the child of Jewish parents has been enrolled as a member of the community but not his parents. They were denied admission because their own parents had destroyed all records of their Jewish heritage to keep them from the Nazis.
Rabbi Sacks, who said the 20 converts had to go to Krakow when they were denied use of the mikveh in Wroclaw, noted that the conversion there was almost blocked by the director of religious programming for the Lauder Foundation in Krakow, Sasha Pecaric, who led a demonstration outside the mikveh and tried to talk the conversion students out of it because an Orthodox rabbi was not officiating.
“With almost no Jews in Poland, we have Jews who are belittling other Jews,” he said.
Pecaric did not return several messages left on his phone.
Rabbi Sacks observed that the Jews of Eastern Europe are so starved for their heritage, that last year a group got together on the eve of Yom Kippur in a community that had no rabbi to lead them in worship services. So instead they listened to a record of Du Du Fisher chanting the Kol Nidre prayer.