A Czech mate in Jewish Prague

Hoffberg advises spending three to four hours for the tour, to enable stops at all the vital destinations, of which there are many.

A synagogue in Prague (photo credit: Courtesy)
A synagogue in Prague
(photo credit: Courtesy)
PRAGUE – Ron Hoffberg arrived in Prague expecting to stay for a week. It’s been 18 years and the Conservative rabbi is still there and has evolved into one of the city’s foremost experts of the city’s historic Jewish Quarter.
The Chicago-born and bred Hoffberg already had an illustrious career after achieving his ordination in the 1960s at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He served as a regional director of United Synagogue Youth, had a full-time pulpit in New Jersey and later taught full time at a Solomon Schechter Day School in northern New Jersey where he also ran a conversion institute. He was also on the World Council of Synagogues, when they received a request from Prague.
“In 2000, around 10 years after the fall of Communism, we were approached by members of the Jewish community in Prague – a splinter group of the Orthodox community – to send a rabbi,” said Hoffberg recently, sitting in a kosher coffee shop in Prague’s bustling Jewish Quarter.
“The rabbi we found ended up canceling a month before he was due to arrive, so we decided to send three candidates from the board for a week each until we could find someone permanent to go. I was the first guinea pig. It turned out that they thought I was what they needed. I had pulpit experience and conversion experience.
“I came for a week, saw there was potential do some good here and agreed to stay for a year. And I’m still here. It turned into a much larger project, helping to rebuild the community shattered by the Holocaust.”
Although he’s officially the rabbi of the Masorti community in Prague, he earns his keep officiating at “destination” bar mitzvot, speaking annually at US locations about the rebirth of the Prague community and – his bread and butter – guiding visitors to Prague through the Jewish Quarter.
Hoffberg advises spending three to four hours for the tour, to enable stops at all the vital destinations, of which there are many.
The Jewish Quarter (Josefov) in Prague is conveniently located between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River and contains many charming side streets, majestic buildings and hundreds of stories.
The standing synagogues, including the Pinkas Synagogue and the Maisel Synagogue; the Jewish Ceremonial Hall; and the awe-inspiring Old Jewish Cemetery all fall under the umbrella of the Jewish Museum in Prague, and Hoffberg’s tours stop at each location for an in-depth look. (One ticket can be purchased for entrance to all the sites.)
The Old New Synagogue requires a separate ticket (ask Hoffberg how it got its name). Built in the 13th century in early Gothic style, it is the oldest preserved synagogue in Central Europe, and is still in use today as the main shul for the community.
But the highlight for many is the stop at the cemetery, which was in operation from the first half of the 15th century till the second half of the 18th century. Declared a national cultural heritage site in 1995, there are nearly 12,000 gravestones in the labyrinth-like cemetery, jutting out at all angles.
Hoffberg points out some of the significant figures buried there, including the “Maharal from Prague,” 16th century Talmudic scholar and philosopher Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (and according to legend the creator of the Golem of Prague); 16th-17th century chief rabbi of Prague David Oppenheim; and Mordechai Maisel, the 16th century benefactor of the city’s Jewish community, whose majestic synagogue bears his name.
Although his specialty is the Jewish Quarter, Hoffberg is also an expert at excursions to the Terezin concentration camp (an hour’s drive from Prague), medieval ghetto towns outside the city and the wondrous Prague Castle complex, as well providing advisement on the city’s best restaurants, museums and walks. He can also arrange Shabbat meals and attendance at services.
If you’re planning on a visit to Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Hoffberg is a one-stop encyclopedic resource – truly a Czech mate.
He can be reached at [email protected]
The writer was a guest of Rabbi Hoffberg.