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Czech Republic: Jews Reach Out To Those Who Have Lost Touch With Their Faith

By Andrea Boyle

All around the Czech capital, Prague, trees bedecked with lights and ornaments are going up in preparation for Christmas -- many of them inside the homes of people of Jewish ancestry. The Czech Jewish community worries that many nonpracticing Jews seem to be losing touch with their religious roots. The city's Jewish community sponsored an event yesterday in Prague in an attempt to bring them back into the fold.

Prague, 8 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Jewish population in the Czech Republic, like similar communities throughout much of Eastern and Central Europe, is small in comparison with other religions. The number of practicing Jews is smaller still. There are estimated to be some 10,000 to 12,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, most of them in the capital, Prague. Some 1,600 belong to the Jewish Community of Prague, an organization which helps to oversee Jewish activities in the capital and elsewhere in the country.

Czech Jewish leaders are concerned by the low figures. Yesterday, they held what they say is the biggest outreach program ever undertaken in Eastern Europe. The heavily promoted event was titled "Is Hanukkah Your Holiday?"

Hanukkah -- the Jewish Festival of Lights -- is a religious holiday that commemorates the victory of the Jews over the Syrians and an ensuing miracle in which a small amount of oil inside the temple kept lamps burning for eight days. Jews celebrate for eight nights by lighting candles and feasting on certain foods.

Peter Gyori is director of Bejt Praha, a Jewish civic organization, and was the organizer behind yesterday's event. He explains the reasons why the Jewish community felt it was necessary to reach out:

"A lot of people with Jewish backgrounds, they have Christmas trees -- celebrating Christmas not as a Christian holiday but as a cultural holiday. And we want to tell them that you, as a Jewish people, your holiday is Hanukkah," Gyori said.

Today, Gyori says organizers hope to reach what he calls the country's "unaffiliated Jews" -- those who have Jewish roots, who come from Jewish families, but who do not actively participate in religious observations.

"Our ultimate goal, as I said, is to try to bring these people back to the organized Jewish life. And the biggest value is when these people will start to celebrate various Jewish holidays at home with their family and their friends. And it is the biggest value, which you cannot really measure," Gyori said.

Yesterday's gathering at Prague's Jerusalem Synagogue included speeches by prominent Jewish leaders, who explained to those in attendance the history of Hanukkah and its various traditions. Children taught the crowd songs related to the celebration, and musicians performed traditional music.

Inside the synagogue, people filled the pews and packed the aisles. The turnout was so great organizers ended up hosting two events. They repeated the activities later in the day to accommodate the response. Organizers estimate some 2,000 people attended from all over the Czech Republic.

Gyori says he was incredibly pleased by the response, saying it exceeded expectations. He says he hopes participants walked away with a greater understanding about Hanukkah and the Jewish faith.

"I do hope that people will leave with certain knowledge, and this knowledge is a very powerful thing -- also, for people who will not be Jewish and will attend this event. And a lot of prejudices or maybe stereotypes about the Jewish community will disappear," Gyori said.

Prague's Jewish Quarter is one of the city's most popular tourist sites and includes the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest working synagogue in Central Europe, dating from around 1270. Some 80,000 Jews living in Czechoslovakia were shipped off to concentration camps by the Nazis in World War II. Their names are inscribed on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Many of the survivors emigrated in the postwar years and after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Gyori says several participants told him they have concealed their Jewish heritage out of fear, but were happy to see the positive response to the event.

Gyori says the event was purposefully scheduled more than two weeks before the official celebration of Hanukkah begins. Maybe this year, he says, some of Prague's Jews will include a menorah in their holiday celebrations, too.