"The only concept [young people born into Communism] have of their religion is a dusty old synogogue. I'm trying to change that."

Rabbi Baruch Myers

Rabbis the world over congregated in Bratislava October 19 to commemorate the 156th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Moses Sofer, affectionately known as Chatam Sofer, who led Bratislava's Jewry from 1806-1839.
Emily Hage

Jews of all ages crowded into the synagogue on Heydukova street in Bratislava on Tuesday, October 3, to honor Yom Kippur, one of the major Jewish holidays of the year. Yet sundown the following Friday, the traditional start of the Sabbath, was like any other; the usual small group of ten elderly orthodox men could be found at the synagogue.

At one time, Bratislava's Jewry made up a third of the city's population and lived in a prime section of the Old Town. Today, the community numbers 400 people and is struggling to maintain its vitality and its Jewishness.

A lot of that struggle lies with the youth. The majority of the younger part of the community considers their Jewishness to be a cultural characteristic. Most of them only go to the synagogue on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, but otherwise they do not observe the laws of the Talmud strictly.

Rabbi Baruch Myers is trying to change all that. Inaugurated on June 20, 1993, as the Jewish community's first rabbi in 25 years, Myers said that young people born into communism are "wary of ideology." "The only concept they have of their religion is a dusty old synagogue," Myers said. "I'm trying to change that."

One sign of his progress so far was found on a recent Monday, when a small crowd of people gathered to celebrate Simchastorah, the festival celebrating the completion of the reading of the Torah. Last year, very few of these people attended.

One example of that effort can be found with Zuzana Szatmary and her son, Michal. Szatmary readily acknowledged that her parents were not religious Jews after World War II because they wanted to "erase those things that led to what happened." But she did not follow their example. "I did the opposite with my son."

Michal Szatmary, 20, has been studying political science in Israel for two years, and considers himself a religious Jew.

Creating a community

Another task facing Myers, a native of New Jersey, is mending the varied strains of Jewish identities within the community - from those who are religious, to those who consider it as a cultural characteristic, to Zionists. He added that he welcomes diversity, and he tries to work according to the particular traditions of Jews here. "It is very rewarding and very difficult; the vast majority are not strictly observant."

With the fall of communism's restriction on religion in 1989, Jews across Slovakia are rebuilding their communities, which was one of the largest in Central Europe before World War II, and reconcile the differences within them.

Rabbi Baruch Myers is trying to unite Bratislava's Jewish community.
Emily Hage

From the 88,000 Jews that once lived in Slovakia, only 3,000 remain, primarily due to two deportations - in 1942 and in 1944 - as well as the emigration of many Jews after the war. In Bratislava, older Jews continued to go to the synagogue after the war, but communism discouraged them from openly practicing their faith for fear of having their education and job opportunities be limited. Faced with that choice, most people assimilated.

There was also physical evidence of the Jewish community's decline in the Slovak capital. The synagogue on Hejdukova street was once one of three in Bratislava.

The Neogotická synagogue on Rybné námestie was built in 1893 but destroyed in 1967, along with what remained of the Jewish ghetto, in order to build the SNP bridge. The Ortodoxná synagogue, built in 1862, once stood on Zámocká ulica, but it was destroyed in 1961 after being damaged during World War II.

Building the Faith

A large part of Myers's role as rabbi is to provide members of the community with "a full range of possibilities," he said. He teaches classes on such topics as women in the Talmudic law, and his wife, Chana Myers, has organized a number of education programs for Jewish youth, including a day camp in the summer, Jewish Sunday school, as well as a pre-school program.

She said that through her work she has seen signs showing that members of the Jewish community are coming to realize that "It's okay to be Jewish." The Czechoslovak Union of Jewish Youth (CSUJY) was created at the end of 1990 for Jews between the ages of 15 and 35 "to preserve and develop Jewish culture, tradition, customs and religion." The CSUJY, which is located at the local Jewish Community Center, organizes five to six seminars a year to discuss topics of concern and to rehabilitate cemeteries and synagogues. It is now offering Hebrew courses there.

Despite the hopeful signs, many Jews are still hesitant to identify themselves, and there are still visible signs of anti-Semitism. A month after his inauguration, for example, Myers was attacked by skinheads, an event that attracted world-wide attention.

While the rebuilding continues to take place, opinions differ as to what the future holds for Bratislava's Jewry. "I see a significant group of individuals interested in religion," Myers said. "I am very optimistic about the state of the religion here." Tomáš Stern, a former president of the CSUJY, does not believe that will happen. "We will have a secular Jewish community where religion will not play a big role."

Pavel Meštan, the director of the Museum of Jewish Culture on Mikulaška ulica, believes Jewish youth will eventually rejoin the fold. It is "only a matter of time," he said, before Jews who assimilated will "recognize their roots." "When they see that there is no need to hide anymore," Meštan said, "they see that it's proceeding toward a cultural identity."