N.J. native left home to become chief rabbi to 400 Slovak Jews

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MINNEAPOLIS (JTA) — Baruch Myers, the chief rabbi of Slovakia for the past five years, has experienced both pleasure and pain in the course of his duties.

He feels satisfied about helping enhance observance among the remnant Jewish community in Slovakia; on the downside, Myers has been physically assaulted twice on the street by teenage skinheads.

Despite such events, the Chabad rabbi remains determined to walk freely through the Slovakian capital of Bratislava as an identifiable Jew — with a full beard, fedora hat and visible tzitzit.

"The more I do that, the safer I feel," Myers said during a recent visit to the United States. "I try to make my presence known — I try to make people understand that they have to get used to me."

When he arrived in Slovakia, Myers thought he would devote all his time to the religious needs of the Jews in Bratislava, but the New Jersey native soon discovered that attaining visibility in the larger society was a goal worth pursuing.

"The higher the profile the community has, the safer we are," said Myers, who is married and the father of six.

The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which is rebuilding Jewish institutions throughout Eastern Europe, supports the kindergarten in Bratislava run by the rabbi's wife.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is also a major benefactor of the community, dispensing cash relief to elderly Jews, sponsoring kosher meals and supporting Jews living in smaller Slovak cities. Support also comes from the Slovak government, which, as is the case in other European countries, disburses grants to religious institutions.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, where he majored in music theory and composition, Myers deepened his Jewish observance while in college. He said that he was "always seeking a strong Jewish identity."

In 1989, he completed his studies at a Lubavitch yeshiva and was ordained as a rabbi. After three years of post-rabbinic study in Leeds, England, Myers learned of an opening for a rabbi in the newly independent Slovakia, which had split off from the former Czechoslovakia.

Myers was searching for a challenge — something that would engage his creativity as music had — and he has found it in Slovakia.

The Jewish community officially numbers only 400 there — 70 percent of which are 70 years old or older. Another 400 people participate in some communal events, and perhaps hundreds more simply refuse to identify publicly as Jews.

In the 19th century, Bratislava was the center of Austro-Hungarian Orthodox Jewry. And famous rabbis are associated with its yeshiva, notably Moshe Sofer Schreiber, known as the Chatam Sofer.

But repression followed. During the Holocaust, some 70,000 Jews from Slovakia were deported to Nazi death camps, never to return.

Large waves of Jewish emigration to Israel occurred in 1948, and again after the Prague Spring in 1968 when travel restrictions were loosened.

While there was Jewish repression throughout the communist era, Myers said, "the Holocaust really is the deepest imprint that you find on people's mentality."

Now, a resurgent Slovak nationalism — which attempts to rehabilitate the name of Father Josef Tiso, the nation's murderous leader during World War II — is accompanied by crude expressions of anti-Semitism.

What truly concerns Myers is that government officials in Slovakia take an "over-tolerant attitude towards manifestations of racism and anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism." The result is a strained relationship between the government and the Jewish community.

Nevertheless, Myers and his family plan to continue to live and work in Bratislava. "I have an overriding concern whenever possible to teach and help people further their Judaism."