By Toby Axelrod
Today in Europe, a wide range of creative and committed individuals are contributing to active and engaging Jewish life. Their stories are often untold and offer lessons for innovation in Jewish life, the abiding strength of Jewish identity and involvement in the face of challenges such as disengagement from the community, inclusion and anti-Semitism, and the fact that such challenges do not define or limit the ambitions of Jewish communities. In a new weekly series, eJewish Philanthropy will profile 10 Jewish community professionals who are building the future of European Jewish life. The series, written by journalist Toby Axelrod, is sponsored by Yesod, an initiative founded in 2016 that focuses on developing, connecting and supporting Jewish community professionals in Europe. Yesod founding partners are JDC, the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. More information at www.yesodeurope.eu.
Growing up in Prague, David Maxa felt Judaism had a stigma: “I knew about it, but it was something you didn’t talk about in public.”
Today, Maxa, who turns 30 in April 2020, is on his way to rabbinic ordination at the Abraham Geiger College Reform rabbinical and cantorial seminary in Potsdam. In June, he will return to the Czech Republic with his wife, Judita Bergmann, and their infant son Rafael Hugo, and will lead congregations in and near Prague.
The turn around came in 2001, after the death of his father, a Holocaust survivor. Maxa, then 11, decided he wanted to know more about his roots. He started learning, and ultimately chose “to focus on the living part of Judaism, not only the past.”
Eventually, he started inviting people to Shabbat dinners, met Jews from around the world, and “realized I would like to help create a form a Judaism that will be alive for this generation and the next generations.” At a World Union of Progressive Judaism conference, educators from the Abraham Geiger College urged him to come to Potsdam; he started his rabbinical studies there in 2014.
Maxa now hopes to strengthen Progressive Judaism in the Czech Republic, where its historical roots run deep: In 1926, delegates from Czechoslovakia “were among the founding members of WUPJ in London. Czech Jews were into progressive ways of living with their Jewish identity.”
The pre-war Jewish community was decimated in the Holocaust: “The names of those who didn’t survive are on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague; this is where I would go with my father to check the names of our family,” Maxa says.
After the war, Jews left the Czech Republic in waves: during the communist revolution in 1948, and later in 1968 with the Soviet crackdown. Many of those who stayed “were hiding their Jewish identity,” says Maxa, who has been serving as a student rabbi in three cities: The Progressive Jewish Community Ec chajim in Prague, and the Jewish communities of Liberec and Karlovy Vary. “People lost trust in each other. Today, people come to his services and tell him they had a Jewish grandfather or grandmother, and “don’t know what to do with it.”
“One time I was approached by someone who was 92 and had survived in hiding, like my father. He had never had a bar mitzvah, and we are working on that.”
“My job is to show people they don’t have to be afraid. They can ask questions.… I am there to help them find their way back to Judaism,” he says. To that end, David shared that Yesod gives you the feeling that there is an organization that wants to know what you potentially need as a young person in building a Jewish community and they can help you. They facilitate contact with other people facing the same or similar problems in Europe.
The biggest external challenge is a rise in open anti-Semitism: Last year during the tashlich service in Prague, “we were praying at the river, and one man from across the street started to make a Nazi salute and a ‘cutthroat’ sign.”
“I am very worried when children see things like this. I am spending so much time explaining to them that Judaism is nothing bad to be.”
“On the other hand, to be fair, we have also a lot of friends,” says Maxa, who aims to work with interfaith dialog groups on combating hate when he becomes full-fledged rabbi for his communities. He also wants to educate the public: “Judaism is not something exotic… It is not a secret and they can see it and they can have friends in the community.”
“The most important thing is that we should never lose hope,” says Maxa. “That goes for the community members, and even more so for the rabbi, because he or she has to show that what we are doing is meaningful. And indeed, I think it is, especially when I hear children’s voices in the synagogue.”