First Czech female rabbi Kamila Kopřivová on her journey to Judaism

Kamila Kopřivová

Kamila Kopřivová is Czechia’s first ever female rabbi. She was ordained in September last year and has since served as a rabbi at the Westminster Synagogue at the Kent House in London. The building is also a home to Torah scrolls that were confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish communities in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia during the Second World War. They were acquired by a British art dealer and brought to England exactly 60 years this month.

Kamila Kopřivová is Czechia’s first ever female rabbi. She was ordained in September last year and has since served as a rabbi at the Westminster Synagogue at the Kent House in London. The building is also a home to Torah scrolls that were confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish communities in Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia during the Second World War. They were acquired by a British art dealer and brought to England exactly 60 years this month.

Kamila Kopřivová | Photo: Archive of Kamila Kopřivová

On the occasion I spoke to Kamila Kopřivová to discuss her journey to becoming a rabbi and what it means to serve as a rabbi at a place so closely connected to Czech Jewish heritage.

“I did not grow up in a Jewish family. My family actually was and still is pretty atheistic there was no religion really present when I was growing up.

“We would be culturally Christian, meaning we would celebrate Christmas with presents, food and by watching fairy tales on the telly, but no religion played any role in my life when I was growing up.”

So what brought you to Judaism and why have you decided to convert?

“I converted to Judaism when I was at the university and at the beginning, my journey towards Judaism was just pure academic interest in religion.

“It is an extreme privilege for me and I feel really proud that I can be here, that I can be so close to the scrolls.”

“When I was deciding what I was going to study at the university, I was drawn to philosophy and religion. That’s when I decided to focus on Judaism.

“So my interest at the beginning was really purely academic, but then I started interacting with the community, I started being more present in the community and it suddenly made more and more sense. And it went so far that I converted.”

Could you describe the most important moments on your way to becoming a rabbi? What did the journey involve?

“I think one of the key moments was me just really deciding that I want to give it a try. I wouldn’t say that I was really persuaded at the beginning that I would become a rabbi.

“But at some point I decided to go to the seminary and try it out and see what it was and if it was for me. And now I must say it was the best decision of my life, because I really found myself and I'm really enjoying it. So that was one of the important moments, just deciding to do it.

Kamila Kopřivová | Photo: Vladimír Šigut,  Forum magazine

“What also played a role were all my rabbinic studies. I studied in Germany, in Jerusalem and in London and all of them gave me a different flavour and different perspectives. It was an incredibly rich experience to be able to study at these three places.”

You currently serve as a rabbi at the Westminster Synagogue in London. What brought you to the British capital in the first place?

“It was a coincidence or, I would even say, a chance. When I was studying in Jerusalem I met one of the fellow students there. Originally I thought he was just one of us rabbinic students, but very soon I understood that he was a rabbi at the Westminster Synagogue in London, Benji Stanley.

“He became interested in my heritage because I was a Czech Jew and I became interested in his job and work, because he was and is still working at the synagogue which houses the Czech scrolls. So we became friends and after I finished my studies in Jerusalem I came for a brief internship to London to the Westminster Synagogue.

“Since then I had been working with the synagogue more and they were so kind as to help me finish my studies and provide a visa for me to be able to stay here in Britain. And then eventually they started advertising a job offer for a second rabbi. I applied and I went through the process and I won the job.”

What is the local Jewish community like at the Westminster synagogue and how did they accept you?

“Our community is really fantastic. It is welcoming, open and warm. When you walk through the door you immediately feel how wonderful the atmosphere is in our community and in our building.

Kamila Kopřivová | Photo: Vladimír Šigut,  Forum magazine

“So I did not really have any problem with being accepted. Our community is very international. We have many people from different countries so the fact that I am also from abroad doesn’t play any role.”

So would you say that being a Czech woman and a converted Jew actually works in your favour rather than being a disadvantage?

“I did not meet with any kind of “resistance”. No, I would absolutely say it’s an advantage. I have wonderful connection with local people but also with foreigners, with both men and women. So I don’t see it as any obstacle in my journey or in my rabbinate.”

What kind of problems do people most often approach you with?

“It's the usual life of a community. We have many people who want to convert, we have many people who need to celebrate some important moments in their lives, such as Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or a wedding. So it's really different types of events. People just need to talk about their lives or get some sort of advice.”

The Westminster synagogue in London happens to be the home of more than 1,500 Scrolls from the desolated Bohemian and Moravian synagogues, which were brought to London almost exactly 60 years ago. What is the story of these scrolls?

“Indeed, we have just celebrated the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Czech scrolls to Westminster Synagogue. We had a wonderful, beautiful weekend of celebrations. We hosted over 200 guests and over 50 scrolls from different communities from all over the world returned for this special weekend to our synagogue.

Kamila Kopřivová | Photo: Vladimír Šigut,  Forum magazine

“But to answer your question: How did the scrolls get to our synagogue? How did they get to London? The simple answer is: On a train, and then on a lorry. They were shipped from Prague where they were sold to London. One of the founding members of our community Ralph Jablon bought the scrolls and he was responsible for all the scrolls coming to our synagogue.”

So, how are the scrolls cared for? And are they actually being used in services?

“When the scrolls arrived in the 1960s, they were examined and sorted according to their age and the condition they were in. Many of them, or I would say most of them were repaired and restored and nowadays over a thousands of those scrolls are serving to communities all over the world.”

So they are being loaned to those communities?

“Yes, they are being loaned to communities and the communities use them on a regular basis.”

What does it feel like, working in a community so closely connected to Czech Jewish history?

“It is an extreme privilege for me and I feel really, really proud that I can be here, that I can be so close to the scrolls. As I said, we just celebrated this wonderful, magnificent anniversary. It was extremely powerful not only to see all the scrolls that returned to our building but also to meet all the people who brought these scrolls to the synagogue and to hear their stories. Because there are so many beautiful personal stories linked to the people who care for and about the scrolls? So it was just extremely moving.”

What was the most difficult moment in your career so far? Was it the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7? How did that affect your community?

“At the beginning, my journey towards Judaism was just pure academic interest in religion.”

“Yes, this was absolutely the hardest moment for me so far. I became a rabbi only in September and the attacks in Israel happened just a month after I entered the rabbinate. No rabbinic school can prepare you for something like this and obviously it was a great shock for all of us.

“So just being in this situation was really, really difficult. But I can say that our community is really managing well. We are just being together, talking about the situation and trying a lot to support each other.”

You have now spent more than five months in London. Dou you consider London your second home now?

“Yes, absolutely. I feel great in London. It is a big city and it feels very different from all the other places I have lived in so far, but it feels good to be here.”

Are you still in contact with Prague Jewish community?

“Yes, absolutely. I am in contact with the Jewish community in Prague, with the progressive community quite regularly. I have even officiated few ceremonies in the Czech Republic, so yes, we are working together remotely.”

Would you like to return to Prague eventually?

“Yes, I think for the foreseeable future I want to stay in London and be in my community here. But maybe sometime in the future it would be great if I could return or maybe deepen the type of cooperation we are having now.”