Ten years ago Rabbi Ron Hoffberg left New Jersey for the Czech Republic, leaving a large and active Jewish community for one decimated by the Holocaust and kept in check by decades of communism.
Based in Prague, today he presides over a small but thriving community as the country’s Masorti Olami, or Conservative, rabbi.
The community holds weekly services drawing up to 40 people, and Hoffberg has overseen more than 40 conversions.
“I saw I could make a difference to those who want to know more about Conservative Judaism,” he wrote in an e-mail interview with NJJN. “We are an appealing approach to Judaism for modern young European Jews.”
On Feb. 25-27, Hoffberg will be scholar-in-residence at Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, talking about Jewish legend and mysticism in his adopted country and the rebirth of its Jewish community. He will also discuss the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
The Masorti community in the Czech Republic is “growing rapidly in some areas, but more slowly in others.” Potential growth, Hoffberg said, is “often slowed by the indigenous Orthodox-loyal leadership.”
“Finances are a great problem because often state and local funding can only go through the Orthodox rabbinate,” explained Hoffberg. “I spend a great deal of my time raising my own funds and programming money. I am not paid by the community as is the case in the Western European countries.”
However, said Hoffberg, “we cooperate where we can with the Orthodox rabbinate. We use the facilities of the Jewish community and its historic synagogues for our services. The Jewish community as a whole is pretty small — several hundred active Jews.”
Hoffberg said he will speak about how members of his community, who tend to be young and comprise about one-third of those Jews, work in cooperation with Prague’s larger Jewish community.
Many Czech Jews discovered their Jewish identity only after the fall of communism, having simply forgotten — or hidden — their history.
“It’s really a constant process of discovery in this country,” said Hoffberg.
Jews have lived in Prague for more than 1,000 years and produced many scholars and educators. Among the most famous was Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as the Maharal. A 16th-century author and philosopher, he was an important talmudic authority whose interest in mysticism gave rise to stories about the Frankenstein-like “golem” that legend says protected the city’s Jews.
More than 250,000 Czech Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and more than 60 synagogues were destroyed. At the outbreak of World War II, 92,000 Jews lived in Prague, more than 20 percent of the city’s population; two-thirds perished in the Shoa. As of 2005, there were approximately 4,000 Jews living in the Czech Republic, about 1,500 in Prague.
“I was invited to become the rabbi of the Masorti community and build that community,” said Hoffberg. “I went for a year and am now completing 10 years. We had an opportunity to place a Masorti rabbi in central Europe and develop traditional, yet modern Judaism.”
Hoffberg went to Prague following a number of years in New Jersey. While here, he was president and founder of the Union County Board of Rabbis, regional president of the Rabbinical Assembly — the rabbinical arm of the Conservative movement — and, for 20 years, ran the Conversion Institute of Northern New Jersey.
He also taught for two decades at Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange, now the Golda Och Academy, served as rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Cranford, and taught at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
In addition to teaching Jewish history at Charles University’s Overseas CIEE program in Prague, Hoffberg also serves as a tour guide.
He urged those interested in supporting Masorti efforts to “contact us when students are studying abroad, contribute to our work, and bring me and other Masorti rabbis to U.S.-based congregations to learn about the world movement.”