'Stand-off' continues over Prague Jewish Community head posting

Old New Synagogue

It has been a divisive year for Prague's Jewish community. In April, a new leadership was elected on their promise to more handle community affairs in a more "transparent and democratic" way and reach out to non-Orthodox members. Two months later, Prague's chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, was forced to step down from that post. Last week, Tomas Jelinek, the Prague Jewish Community chairman who pushed for Rabbi Sidon to go, barricaded himself in his office, refusing to give up the post he was himself ousted from in November.

Old New Synagogue
Tomas Jelinek was elected Chairman of the Prague Jewish Community this spring on a promise to usher in an era of greater transparency and democracy. He had helped form a political grouping to achieve those goals and also pledged to strengthen social service programmes and reach out to more people into the community.

Members of the Jelinek's group, the Coalition for a Democratic Community, also pushed for the removal of Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon, an Orthodox rabbi and former dissident under communism. Rabbi Sidon was viewed by some in the community as too conservative, and unwilling to reach out to the non-Orthodox people who make up most of Prague's 1600-member strong Jewish community.

Jakub Roth, the spokesman for the Platform for a Community for All, an opposing grouping formed shortly after the Coalition came into being, regrets what he sees as the "politicising" of community affairs. He says that before Mr Jelinek ran for his post, people campaigned as individuals, not as members of any grouping, and the development has been divisive.

"Unfortunately, what happened was that politics really took over everything in the community. It has spread into the religious life in the community, in the social sphere, in cultural topics — basically, everywhere. Every part of the community that used to be a social group now has become a political arena."

In November, a general assembly recalled Mr Jelinek and several others from their leadership posts, effective immediately. His opponents largely objected to his management style. They also objected to Mr Jelinek's dismissal of the head of Prague's only Jewish school a few days before the academic year was ending — and his distributing community members e-mail addresses to a public relations company, without explanation.

Last month, the assembly also took a no-confidence vote in the representative body, which is a step towards early elections. That vote was confirmed by a second general assembly in December, as required by the assembly's bylaws.

But Mr Jelinek refused to accept the result.

He and his supporters organised a mail-in or absentee ballot, the results of which were to be made public this Tuesday, partly on the grounds that many elderly members of the community could not be present for the assembly vote, and that their views must be heard.

However, according to Mr Roth, the bylaws do allow for absentee votes in such cases, and so Mr Jelinek has no legal grounds to hold on to his post, whatever the result of the mail-in campaign on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Czech Ministry of Culture last week acknowledged Mr Frantisek Banyai as the new chairman of the community. But Mr Jelinek and his supporters have refused to go quietly, even as an interim measure.

Jakub Roth again.

"When Mr Banyai, who was elected the new chairman on Wednesday, tried to come on Friday morning (Dec 17) to the office, and agree with Mr Jelinek on the handover of the office and all the rights, he ran into armed body guards standing in front of the office and not letting anyone in. This stand-off continues until now. The Jewish community is a part of it. The office of the chairman and the manager are basically occupied — I cannot find any other word for that — by a group of Jelinek supporters and four personal bodyguards. No-one knows who is paying them."