Pragues long-empty Spanish Synagogue being revived

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PRAGUE — Prague's long-derelict Spanish Synagogue will resound with Jewish prayer this month when a new, non-Orthodox Jewish congregation in the Czech capital holds High Holy Day services there.

Bejt Praha, which organizers describe as an open Jewish congregation, plans to hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the Spanish Synagogue.

"We are expecting 300 people at services, but I'm probably underestimating," Bejt Praha founder Lisa Frankenberg said in an interview.

Frankenberg, 27, came to Prague in 1990. She is the president and publisher of Prague's weekly English-language newspaper, The Prague Post.

She and friends founded Bejt Praha last year as an alternative to Prague's official Orthodox community.

This year, the group formally became a member of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities.

Bejt Praha, which has a mailing list of about 300, mainly targets the hundreds of American and other Jews who form part of the large foreign community in Prague.

Czech Jews also participate in services and events organized by the group.

"We don't label ourselves Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or American," Frankenberg said. "We are a Jewish organization — we are the open Prague Jewish community."

Outreach is a main concern and focus of the group, she said. "We want to help Jews in Prague express their own identity."

Frankenberg was involved in organizing non-Orthodox High Holy Day services last year, which were held in the historic High Synagogue.

"We had 80 chairs, but about 250 people came," she said. "It was a wonderful, overwhelming surprise for us."

Based on that response, "we formed Bejt Praha," Frankenberg said.

The services this year will be led by Rabbi Arnold Turetsky of White Plains, N.Y. His trip to Prague is sponsored in part by the Midrasha Yerushalayim, the Israeli-based education arm of the Masorti, or Conservative, movement.

Over the past year, Bejt Praha organized Purim celebrations, including services led by Turetsky and a Purim party, and festivities marking Israel's Independence Day.

A barbecue this month kicked off the group's annual activities. After the holidays, the group will begin Israeli dance sessions, Frankenberg said.

She said the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which gives some financial support to Bejt Praha activities, such as contributing to the organization of the High Holy Day services, helped two young Czechs get to London to learn Israeli dance.

Prague's Spanish Synagogue was built just outside the former medieval Jewish ghetto in the late 19th century, in the ornate Moorish style.

Empty for decades, it has been used as a storage space for the textile collection of the Jewish Museum.

Restoration work on the building is scheduled to begin just after the holidays.