Apart from Prague, in which the great majority of Jews live, there are several smaller communities, notably in Brno, Plzeň, Karlovy Vary, Olomouc, Liberec, Děčín, Ostrava, Ústí nad Labem and Teplice. However, none of these has more than 350 persons. In recent years, the Jewish community in Prague has been bolstered by Czechs of Jewish origin who are exploring their Jewish roots as well as by the presence of a large number of foreign Jews, primarily Americans and Israelis, working in that city. The Czech Repulic is home to 3,900 Jewish people.
The presence of many medieval Jewish sites (including Prague’s celebrated Altneuschul, the oldest functioning synagogue in Europe) attests to the deep roots of the Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia. Though the first Jews most probably came to central Europe with Roman legions, the first written historical document mentioning Jews in Bohemia and Moravia is the Raffelstetten Custom and Navigation Regulations dated between 903–906 CE. The very first written document about Prague, a manuscript dated 965–6 CE, was the work of a Jewish merchant and diplomat, Ibrahim ibn Jacob, who was sent on a mission by the caliph of Cordoba. In 1096, the Jews suffered severe persecution and were forced to undergo baptism at the hands of the Crusaders. Over the course of the following centuries, the fortunes of the local Jewish community alternated between periods of persecution and periods of tolerance and prosperity.
Beginning in the 12th century, Prague became a great center of Jewish learning. It eventually became the home of celebrated Talmudists such as Abraham ben Azriel and Isaac ben Moshe, as well as great rabbinic scholars including the famous rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (ca. 1520– 1609), known as the Maharal of Prague, the most important Talmudist and kabbalist of his time (and, according to a famous legend, also the creator of the Golem). Other important Jewish personalities in Prague included such as David Gans and Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller. Jews experienced a golden age under the reign of Rudolf II (1576–1611) and Mathias (1611–1619). The expulsion of Jews from Vienna in 1670 and the flight from Poland at the time of the Chmelnicki massacres in 1648–1649 led to an increase in the Jewish population of Prague. Nevertheless, subsequent rulers oppressed their Jewish subjects. When Bohemia and Moravia came under Austrian Habsburg rule, the situation of the Jews became precarious and Empress Maria Theresa ordered their expulsion. In 1745, Jews were banished from Prague but only for a few weeks, as the economic situation forced the empress to lift the ban. At the end of the 18th century, during the reign of Joseph II, conditions improved rapidly. In 1848, the ghetto was abolished and by 1867, the process of emancipation was complete.
Much of the Jewish population, particularly the upper class, identified with the dominant German culture, and many of the great Jewish writers from Prague, notably Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Max Brod and many others from the so-called “Prague Circle,” wrote in German. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, and later, with the independence of the country, a greater number of Jews adopted the Czech language. Those who were moved by the stirrings of Czech nationalism (and who opposed Zionism) claimed “My Zion is Prague.”
The killing of a Christian girl near Polná in 1899 led to the infamous Hilsner ritual murder trial, which produced a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment (including riots) in Bohemia and Moravia. This, in turn, accelerated the exodus of Jews from many of the smaller communities to Prague and other large cities.
Assimilation, emigration and a low birthrate took a heavy toll. By the 1920s, the rate of intermarriage in Prague had reached some 30%. However, the political status of Jews in independent inter-war Czechoslovakia was especially favorable, and the Jewish nationality of those who chose to identify themselves as such was recognized by the authorities. Jews played a prominent role in the arts, sciences, commerce and industry. Many famous personalities were born on the territory of Bohemia and Moravia, such as Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler.
About 80,000 Czech Jews (85% of the community) were killed in the Shoah. Many of the survivors attempted to rebuild Jewish life, but with the imposition of Communist rule, the atmosphere became increasingly inhospitable. During the first years after the war, Czechoslovakia supported the establishment of a Jewish state. After 1948, it transferred significant quantities of arms and ammunition to Israel, including fighter aircraft. It also helped train Israeli soldiers and airmen.
The SlánskýTrial of 1952, in which a number of Communists of Jewish origin were charged with Zionism and other “crimes,” was accompanied by a general deterioration in conditions for the Czechoslovak Jewish community. The JDC and other foreign Jewish organizations were expelled and many Jews were arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges. Emigration was also tightly restricted. With de-Stalinization, the situation for Jews improved somewhat, but communal life was still subject to stringent control and emigration was restricted.
The 1989 Velvet Revolution, in which democracy was reinstated, led to a reawakening of Jewish consciousness and has opened up many new avenues of Jewish expression.
Among the local Jewish organizations is the Union of Jewish Youth, which is an affiliate of the European Union of Jewish Students. Prague is also home to a B’nai Brith lodge called “Renaissance,” which has continued the traditions of that organization’s pre-war presence in Czechoslovakia. The European Shoah Legacy Institute, established by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2010, is a follow-up to the Terezín Declaration, which was endorsed by representatives of 47 states in Prague and Terezín in June 2009. The institute operates in conjunction with the European Union and with European countries inside and outside of the EU.
The Lauder schoolsare the only full-time Jewish educational institutions in the Czech Republic. They include a kindergarten, an elementary school and a high school. The elementary school was established in 1997 and the high school in 1999. The schools are all located in the same complex on Belgická Street in Prague 2 and are open to youngsters of all Jewish backgrounds. They also admit non-Jewish children who agree to respect the Jewish traditions and ethical principles that are upheld by the school. Since 2013, the Lauder Foundationhas been running an e-learning school in the Czech Republic. In 2005 the Palacky University founded the Centre for Jewish Studies in Olomoucand in 2012 the Charles University in Prague established a Centre for Jewish Studies.
The Jewish quarter of Prague, Josefov, is an unparalleled repository of Jewish art and architecture and one of the most outstanding Jewish sites in Europe. Its synagogues (including the 14th-century Altneushul), ancient cemetery, Jewish Town Hall with its iconic clock featuring Hebrew numbers, and museum are among the leading tourist attractions of Prague. The city’s famous Jewish museumwas established in 1906 with the aim of preserving valuable artifacts from Prague synagogues that had been demolished during the reconstruction of the Jewish Town at the beginning of the 20th century. It is one of the best-known institutions of its type in Europe.
The names of up to 80,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Germans were painted on the walls of the sanctuary of the 500-year-old Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. During Communist rule, entire sections were erased, but the names have since been restored. The grounds of the former concentration camp at Terezín (Theresienstadt) are preserved as a memorial site and present the tragic history of those deported to the so-called “model ghetto,” which was, in fact, a way station to Auschwitz.
Many cities and towns have Jewish relics in various states of repair. In the Moravian town of Mikulov, located directly on the border with Austria, there is a 16th-century synagogue containing an exhibition of the history of the Jewish community. The Nouveau Romanesque-style synagogue in Český Krumlov, completed in 1909, has also been restored.
The Jewish community in Prague operates its own restaurant, “Shalom,” as well as a kosher grocery store. The Dinitz kosher restaurant is under the supervision of the Prague rabbinate. Outside Prague are two kosher dining rooms in the Jewish communities of Brno and Olomouc.
Siroka 8, Prague 1
+420 224 818 752
+420 728 186 832
U Milosrdnych 6
+420 221 665 141
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database.
The Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, housed in the celebrated 400-year-old Jewish Town Hall, is the leading communal organization, representing the Jewish communities in the various cities and towns in the country.
Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic
11001 Praha 1
There are four functioning synagogues in Prague: the Old-New Synagogue (Altneushul); the High Synagogue (Hochshul); the Jerusalem (Jubilee) Synagogue; and the Spanish Synagogue. Alongside the more traditional service held by the Prague Jewish Community, there is an Open Prague Jewish Community called Bejt Prahaand a Jewish Liberal Community in Prague, called Bejt Simcha.