The Jewish community in Prague almost immediately set off an association in my mind with a gemara in Menachos. Menachos 53B has Avraham almost at the point of despair for his people, after hearing from HKBH the extent of their iniquity. Hashem corrects him, by pointing to a pasuk comparing them to a luxuriously foliated olive tree. The latter it seems, can go for long periods before bearing any fruit, after which they come back with a vengeance. The communists did too good of a job suppressing religion. They would have appeared to have snuffed it out. Instead, the sap in the tree of Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain lay dormant, ready to rise again when the right springtime would arrive.
Intermarriage, I was told, still approaches the 90% mark. But there are also baalei teshuvah. In fact, I ran into quite a few seasoned baalei teshuvah at the Maharal Conference this week who had become rabbonim and are serving communities all over Europe. It gave me particular delight to meet several young people who hailed from the old USSR itself, who had learned and gotten semichah and now serve communities in Eastern, Central, and Western Europe.
Some of the baalei teshuvah are home grown, staying in the countries in which they were raised. One of those, Karol Efraim Sidon is the Chief Rabbi not of Prague alone, but the entire Czech Republic. Before he became observant, he had been involved with the pro-democracy dissidents during the Soviet era. This gives him special status with non-Jewish Czechs, and makes him an effective Jewish face to the general community.
The job of managing all the halachic requirements of observant life is far too great for one person. Rabbi Sidon is fortunate to have the assistance of one of the most impressive people I met in Prague, Rabbi Menachem Kalcheim. His father, R. Uzi Kalcheim z”l, was one of the original talmidim of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav. He had a keen interest in Maharal, and it was he who introduced the serious study of Maharal to the yeshivah, beginning with bringing a lone copy (found after some hard searching in a sefarim store in Meah Shearim before the publication of the set that is now common) into the beis medrash. He continued learning and giving shiurim, as well as writing on Maharal. Largely because of him, the study of Maharal became a staple in the yeshivos of the Dati-Leumi orbit.
Towards the end of the Soviet period, the Israeli government organized a tour of Jewish communities behind the increasingly porous Iron Curtain. R. Kalcheim, a native Israeli of Polish familial origin, was one of the rabbonim. He fell in love with Prague, and announced that he was determined to stay. He did, until his petirah. His son Menachem came back from Israel to help continue what his father began. He is a thorough ben Torah, and gifted for being able to follow through on detail work without being fazed by an endless train of wrinkles and problems. He turns to it all with boundless energy and resolve. The community has daily minyanim, shechita, full access to reliable food products, and a growing elementary school. He is also committed to Maharal, and preparing his father’s unpublished writings for print. Among other things, they define the key concepts that run through Maharal’s writings, as well as the internal organization of his works, explaining the order in which Maharal cites different gemaros and medrashim.
Does serving in out of the way outposts bring out the best in people, and produce such gems? Or are people like this around in all of our communities, often underappreciated and unknown? I suspect (and hope) that it is the latter – especially the week before the yemai hadin, when some of the rest of us need to ride their coattails.