News from Ceske Krumlov: Passover and a Beit Midrash

Passover 2015My friend and student, Krista Coyan, leads an interfaith Jewish service in a historic synagogue in the Czech Republic in the town of Ceske Krumlov. I periodically share happenings in Ceske Krumlov with MJ Musings readers. I will be traveling there in early August after a stop in London to meet with some new Messianic Jewish friends I have there. MJ Musings readers have supported my upcoming travel and I am very grateful. I’ll be leading some seminars comparing the ideas of Abraham Joshua Heschel with C.S. Lewis (a Jewish and a Christian thinker, with some marked overlap). The news I am sharing today includes the recent Passover Seder Krista led and study groups using some books purchased with funds donated by MJ Musings readers.

To read more about the work in the Czech Republic, see “A Synagogue in the Czech Republic” here and “Reawakening Jewish Life in Ceske Krumlov” here.

The following words are Krista’s.

Passover 2015 in Ceske Krumlov

After much planning, many phone calls and loads of stress (where can I get 15 boxes of Kosher for Passover matzah?), Cantor Michal Forst and I were prepared for the Seder at the synagogue. This would be a first since 1938. Matzah purchased and shipped, menu confirmed, Haggadot ordered, eggs boiled, chametz gotten rid of…the list went on and on.

Krista speaking to a church education group about Passover.

Krista speaking to a church education group about Passover.

I was nervous and equally excited. I was so happy to know that a cantor would be leading our Seder. We had gone over what songs he would sing, accompanied by his accordionist from his Klezmer band “Tateloshn”. I had 20 people with confirmed reservations (the max we can seat for dinner in the synagogue cafe) and we arrived at the synagogue filled with hope, excitement and anticipation.

All the preparations were made. The Seder plates beautifully arranged with their elements, parsley green and fresh, eggs shiny, charoset sweet and glistening. As we were finishing the last details on the table settings a couple walked into the cafe. They were tourists from England and they were visiting the synagogue her father attended before being taken to the concentration camp at Terezin. She asked to take pictures of the Seder preparations. As tears filled her eyes she told me how happy her father would be to know that there is Jewish life once again at his synagogue. It was too bad they had other plans and couldn’t join us for the Seder.

People started filling the cafe, as we waited for the Cantor to arrive so we could begin Kabbalat Shabbat. I became really nervous as more and more people came and the cantor was increasingly late. One young woman who is now a regular at our events brought three extra unexpected guests with her. My stress level rose as I tried to figure out how to make more space at the tables and miraculously make the chicken thighs increase in number. Finally the cantor arrived, very late but safe and sound.

We entered the synagogue and passed out the siddurim. This was a moment I had been dreaming of for almost two years. My friend Ruth, who has survived the Holocaust and enjoyed the renewed spirit in her synagogue after almost 80 years of it being dormant, had been dreaming of this for far many more years.

As Cantor Forst sang Shema Yisrael and the Amidah, Ruth leaned over to me and said, “Thank you”. For almost all of those in attendance this was a new experience. The songs sung in the old way, the melodies familiar and yet different and new. This was something extra-special. Our normal Shabbat services are awesome and homey, this seemed regal.

We were an hour behind when we went down to the cafe to begin the Seder. I like things to go according to plan and I could already see that my virtues would be tested as Cantor Forst is a free spirit and does what his heart leads him to do. After some shuffling about to seat everyone who came unexpectedly (we were now 27 altogether and the cafe seats 20) and a stressful conversation with the cook to see how we could make the food stretch, we began.

Cantor Forst did an excellent job explaining to the mixed group all that was going on step by step. Armed with our new Haggadot that are in Hebrew, Czech and English (thanks to all of you who donated money to our synagogue community!) we took the journey of the Israelites together.

I learned a lot this evening. I learned that the songs and music are what really make it special. I learned that if the Seder goes too long it can diminish the beauty of it (the cantor and I had discussed the ending time for 8:30 pm…we ended at 10:45). I learned that I should have had water jugs on the table. I learned that our group is really forgiving and enthusiastic. I learned that although it seems better to bring in a professional, what we are already doing is just great and fits our community really well.

The beginnings of a library for study, donated by MJ Musings readers.

The beginnings of a library for study, donated by MJ Musings readers.

A House of Study

Our community of faith wants to thank you, MJ Musings readers, ever so much for donating books so that we could begin a Beit Midrash. Our community is interfaith, with Jews, Hindu-Jews (Hin-Jews as some say it), Christians, Bahai, and more in attendance at various small groups and our Shabbat services. It was in our predominantly Christian small group that we began this house of study. The books will also be used by others in our broader interfaith community. And now the people attending are loaning and donating more books so our portable library is growing.

Derek and I discovered some time ago that C.S. Lewis, the Christian thinker and writer, has had some influence in the Czech Republic. Though people here are overwhelmingly secular (most are atheists), there has been a great deal of interest in Lewis. Therefore we can get C.S. Lewis books in Czech.

We unveiled some Lewis books at our first “Beit Midrash” night here recently: Miracles, Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and Mere Christianity. As you can see in the pictures, attendance was low the first night (it was a state holiday). Nevertheless, the discussion was good, really good.

Krista leading discussion at the first house of study.

Krista leading discussion at the first house of study.

There is nowhere else in the Czech Republic (at least I can’t imagine where else) that you could find a group, mostly men by far, talking so intimately about love. We asked hard questions and looked in the Bible for answers. We learned some Hebrew: dod, ahava and rayah. We discussed how we need to become better at loving others, what is love and how do we understand it through the eyes of our Creator.

After some coffee and chocolate cream pie (thanks to my husband) we took the first steps down a path that had been laid out more than two years ago. Rabbi Leman and I have been talking about introducing C.S. Lewis and Abraham Joshua Heschel as authors to study in our community for a long time now. It has happened then very suddenly that we received the resources to buy these books in Czech and then the idea of the Beit Midrash as a way to utilize them to their fullest. We have been unable so far to obtain Heschel books in Czech, but we keep pursuing it.

When we opened our lending library and everyone had a chance to see the books and decide which ones to read first, it was awesome to see the enthusiasm for the idea of this House of Study approach to our group meetings.

For eight years now we have been teaching this small group. Now it is time for us all to become students as well as teachers, learning from and teaching each other. This is a new idea here and I hope that we can do it well. 

If you would like to donate for the Czech Republic work, you can do so through the donations page for Tikvat David synagogue in Atlanta. Please note in the memo or message portion of your donation that this is for the Czech Republic. Here is the link.

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