Shofar in hand, local rabbi visits Eastern Europe

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A High Holy Day trip to Slovakia and other Eastern European countries opened Rabbi Malcolm Sparer's eyes to a world of physical destruction and spiritual fortitude.

"It's amazing how Jews will struggle to survive in spite of the environment and circumstances in which they find themselves," said Sparer, president emeritus of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and vice president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of San Francisco.

"The hunger for Jewish survival — that's the most important thing," he said during an interview Monday at a kosher restaurant in San Francisco.

"We in America are so hung up on whether we're going to survive as Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Jews. What I saw are people who are concerned just about surviving as Jews."

Sparer spent three weeks in Eastern Europe, with most of his time in Kosice, Slovakia. There, he conducted Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for a community of about 1,400 Jews and several hundred displaced Jewish families from the Kosovar-Albanian region.

He also took side trips to Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Ukraine.

Wherever he went, the 72-year-old Sonoma resident made sure he was armed — with his shofar. He blew it every day, with some people thanking him and telling him they hadn't heard the sound of a ram's horn in a long, long time.

"Like a gangster carries his .45, I carried my shofar," Sparer said with a smile.

What struck Sparer the most during his travels was the state of disrepair of most synagogues. With walls falling apart, debris and chunks of concrete strewn inside, and bare scaffolding supporting the superstructure, many of the synagogues were too far gone to use as a place of worship.

"The Nazis raped these synagogues, and then the communists ravaged them," Sparer said. "I saw synagogues that were being sustained by scaffolding, or else they would fall. These communities just don't have any money to do anything. And with human needs so compelling, it's just not possible to spend money on rebuilding synagogues, which makes it tragic."

Sparer made note of the disrepair in his report to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which organized the trip and Sparer's participation in Kosice's High Holy Day services.

He made two suggestions that might at least get the ball rolling on repairing the once architecturally stunning synagogues that Europe's Jews built in almost every style, from Gothic to Art Nouveau. Hundreds were destroyed or severely damaged during World War II; others throughout the former Yugoslavia were damaged in recent wars.

One of Sparer's recommendations was to send entrepreneurs and engineers from the United States to analyze the buildings and to meet with local officials. The other was to conduct an Internet search for older relatives and families from Eastern European cities who might want to offer financial assistance for renovation.

Although there are sometimes news reports of Jewish agencies helping to rebuild or repair a synagogue in Eastern Europe or Russia, what's being done isn't enough, Sparer said.

"They're Band-Aiding the synagogue. They're not rebuilding it," he said. "It's not like the Dohany synagogue in Budapest."

Then again, not many are.

Renovated in 1996, the vast Dohany Street Synagogue — also called the Great Synagogue — can seat 7,000 people. The synagogue is located in Hungary's capital, which Sparer said has a Jewish community of between 80,000 and 100,000.

Construction began in 1854 and the synagogue functioned for almost a century before it was shut for more than 50 years after being hit by a bomb in World War II. Its impressive Moorish-style towers can be seen from afar and the interior detail work is magnificent, Sparer said.

"It's probably the most beautiful synagogue in the world," said Sparer, who delivered a short sermon at the Dohany a day before returning to the United States.

Outside of Kosice and Budapest, Sparer visited mainly small and medium-sized towns and villages.

"In some areas, there was time for just a quick visit," he said. "But the enthusiasm people had over meeting an American rabbi was very positive."

One lasting impression that Sparer came away with is that the Jewish community isn't doing enough to cultivate the next generation of Jews in the Eastern European towns he visited. He saw very few programs and services aimed at young Jews.

"The demise of the communist systems has disenfranchised…our next generation of leaders," he wrote in his report. "We must nurture them back and enrich their lives Jewishly."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.