President’s Column: From Old to New
The impressive Jewish history of Prague dominated my recent visit to that city as a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The Altneuschul—a synagogue dating back 800 years—the oldest Jewish cemetery in Europe and a Jewish museum with thousands of artifacts are among the landmarks that bespeak the former glory of this Jewish community. Once, in the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in world. Today, the city looks like a fairyland in its beauty, and its Jewish sights play a prominent role in its popularity among tourists.
But a visit to Prague also underscores the vicissitudes of Jewish life. It was there, according to legend, that Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal, created a golem to protect the community from attack. Despite their contributions to the city, the Jews were expelled by Empress Maria Theresa in 1745. When World War II began, 55,000 Jews lived in Prague; more than two-thirds of them perished in the Holocaust.
Czech officials greeted us warmly. We thanked Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and President Vaclav Klaus for their country’s support of Israel and for recent legislation opposing Holocaust denial. Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told us of his first visit to Israel 43 years ago and reminisced about his friendship with the late Teddy Kollek. And we will never forget our debt to the Czech people for supplying airplanes and arms when Israel was outgunned in the 1948 War of Independence.
Today’s Czech Jewish community is small—only 1,800— but it is tentatively beginning to rebuild. In one of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation’s Jewish schools we were met by beautiful children singing Hebrew songs.
But despite the new buds of jewish life we witnessed, I was glad that the second part of the Presidents Conference meeting was in Jerusalem. Prague’s Altneuschul was wonderful, but I still prefer Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland. When the wheels of the jet thudded onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, I heard myself whispering the word “home.”
Later that week, at a gathering of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, I met a young lady from the Bnei Menashe community, one of an estimated 8,000 people from India’s border states of Manipur and Mizoram who claim descent from the son of biblical Joseph. She wept with mixed emotions as she told us about making aliya with her mother, sister and 206 other olim. She is also worried about her father who stayed behind in India. Nonetheless, she has fulfilled her dream to come home after 2,700 years. Now she’s determined to make a contribution to Israeli society by studying nursing. I can picture her already in the uniform of the Henrietta Szold Hadassah–Hebrew University School of Nursing.
From Prague to Manipur to Jerusalem: What a varied and wonderful Jewish family we have. I’ll think of this as we all gather around our tables for Passover. No matter where we break matza this year, we will all end the Seder with “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
For Hadassah, that is not a theoretical statement. Over the last few months we’ve had 10 different Israel missions. Recently, many of our most generous donors on the Cornerstone Mission broke ground in Jerusalem for our newest and one of our most ambitious projects: a hospital tower at our Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem. This new citadel of healing, designed to anticipate the needs of tomorrow, will house all overnight patients and revolutionize patient care. We will be opening the official campaign at our national convention in July, and each of us will have the opportunity to make our contributions to help build Jerusalem. But don’t take my word for it. I hope that each of you will make good on your “Next Year in Jerusalem” pledge and see the fruits of Hadassah’s work for yourselves. Sign up for one our missions.
I wish you and your loved ones a joyous holiday. Hag kasher v’sameah. Happy Passover.