Author Archives: Lindsey Bridwell


Jewish Patriots

As Baltimore and Maryland commemorate the American victory over the British in the War of 1812 and honor Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” — inspired by the sight of Fort McHenry’s tattered flag that “was still there” after the 1814 Battle of Baltimore — local institutions are shedding light on the contributions of Jewish patriots that helped secure the nation’s freedom.

Mendes Cohen (Portrait of Mendes Cohen, 1818 by Joseph Wood. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Mendes Cohen
(Portrait of Mendes Cohen, 1818 by Joseph Wood. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s new exhibit, “The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, the Most Extraordinary Baltimorean You’ve Never Heard Of,” and the Levy Center and Jewish Chapel in Annapolis, in particular, are ensuring that these often-overlooked heroes and their stories are remembered.

Sometimes referred to as the second American Revolution, the War of 1812 permanently dissolved European strongholds on the United States and cemented the young nation as an entity in charge of its own destiny. In the years following it, a strong sense of American identity developed, and the flag became a powerful emblem of that identity.

The Jewish museum casts the story of Mendes Cohen as paralleling that development of a national psyche, said its director, Marvin Pinkert.

“Cohen is trying to answer for himself, ‘What does it mean to be American and Jewish?’ He is the first generation [of his family] to be born in the United States of America,” said Pinkert. “That’s what the core [of the exhibit] is about, the process of finding one’s identity and the ways in which people build their identity.”

Born in Richmond in 1796, Cohen died in Baltimore in 1879, living at the time a very long life. Of Sephardic descent, one facet of Cohen’s identity was that of soldier, and at the Battle of Baltimore — unlike Key, who viewed the engagement from a ship offshore — “Cohen wasn’t watching, he was in Fort McHenry,” said Pinkert. Cohen volunteered for Capt. Nicholson’s Baltimore Fencibles artillery unit (volunteers were not required to swear oath upon a New Testament Bible, something Cohen refused to do) and was one of three men who bravely retrieved the main supply of gunpowder from its storage inside the fort after a bomb had landed in the magazine.

Cohen and his fellow artillerymen saved the gunpowder supply — and the fort — from detonating.

While his life story strongly relates to the wider regional commemoration of the War of 1812, the museum sees Cohen’s biography as a jumping-off point. The new exhibit urges visitors to consider the events after the war through the lens of American identity and the “light it casts on the entire century that follows,” said Pinkert, who curated the museum experience with Deborah Cardin.

The physical exhibition space, designed as a spiral within a spiral, allows visitors to move through an outer loop that illustrates events in Cohen’s family life and that of his five brothers and a sister and an inner loop that displays simultaneous events in Baltimore and throughout the 19th-century Jewish world. Visitors can move back and forth between the storylines, which include hundreds of artifacts, letters and diaries from Cohen’s life, some on loan from the Maryland Historical Society and the Johns Hopkins University Archeological Museum.

Pinkert described Cohen’s “almost unbelievable” life experience as part “Forrest Gump” — he seemed to show up everywhere, including at London’s Westminster Abby for Queen Victoria’s 1838 coronation, at the Vatican for the installation of a new pope and even in Paris during the French Revolution. An adventurer, Cohen was also part “Indiana Jones,” said Pinkert with a laugh. Between 1829 and 1835, he visited England, Russia, Europe and Turkey, was the first American tourist in Jerusalem and even floated down the Nile River collecting Egyptian artifacts.

Cohen seemed to repeatedly try on different identities, Pinkert said, as a businessman in the banking, lottery and railroad industries, and he was also a philanthropist as member of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, forerunner of today’s The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. When Cohen returned from his travels, he became involved in politics and championed the Jew Bill, a law that dissolved the mandatory swearing-in upon a Christian Bible in order to take public office. He was a delegate in the Maryland General Assembly in 1847 and a delegate to the State Peace Convention during the Civil War. Cohen lived life as both a member of elite society as well as a persecuted minority.

“The idea is to use Cohen’s adventure experience to illustrate the global experience of Jews of the time as well,” explained Pinkert. “How did it happen that there was this tremendous transformation of life for Jews; the way the hope of equality and citizenship [arose] in both Europe and America?”

The Cohen exhibit is interactive, and visitors are welcomed by a multimedia “ghost” of Cohen that ushers them through the journey; they have the opportunity to re-create some of Cohen’s experiences, such as the rescue of gunpowder during the Battle of Baltimore.

But the message Pinkert hopes visitors come away with after seeing Cohen’s many incarnations unravel before them is to consider what comprises their own complex identity.

“We started with what many people would consider an obscure piece of history,” said Pinkert, “and we ended with something that is focused on what touches our lives.”

Uriah Levy (Provided)

Uriah Levy

‘Saving Monticello’
While Cohen was on land fighting for freedom at Fort McHenry, his naval counterpart, Uriah P. Levy, was at sea battling British forces.

There is no documentation that the two Jewish servicemen knew each other, noted journalist, historian and author Marc Leepson, but Levy’s story has also drawn local interest. Leepson himself decided to study the man because of a persistent uncle who shared a hunch for a good story.

On a return trip from visiting Jefferson’s Monticello home in Virginia, Leepson’s uncle asked, “Did you know that Jews owned Monticello? You should write a book about it.” Leepson shrugged it off, but his uncle kept harping on it, so “I said I’d write a magazine article and [Preservation Magazine] gave me the cover,” recalled the historian. “Sometimes the articles turn into books. I got so much response to that article, I wrote the book in 2001.”

Leepson’s book, “Saving Monticello,” is Uriah P. Levy’s story, beginning when he was born in Philadelphia in 1792 as a fifth-generation Sephardic Jewish American — unique for that time — from great-great-grandparents who escaped Lisbon during the Inquisition of 1733.

Levy was fiercely patriotic — growing up, his heroes were George Washington and John Paul Jones — and he ran away from home at age 10 to be a cabin boy on a ship, allegedly promising his parents he’d be home in time for his bar mitzvah, which he celebrated on time. Levy cultivated great skills as a sailor and also bought in as part owner of a merchant ship at age 19. Then in 1812 at age 20, Levy joined the Navy to help defend his country.

Very adept as a seaman, he became assistant sailing master on the USS Argus, the most feared U.S. ship during the War of 1812, having captured more than 20 British vessels. But Levy then became a prisoner of war, was held in Dartmoor, England for 16 months and returned to the United States in 1815.

Ultimately Levy served a 50-year career in the Navy, but like his imprisonment, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“For one thing, the Navy was noted as a hotbed of anti-Semitism,” said Leepson. “He was court-martialed five times and thrown out of the Navy twice, then reinstated by two presidents.”

Leepson said the incidents over which he was court-martialed were typically “someone calling him a dirty Jew and [Levy] punching him in the face.” He was tried, arrested, and to be fair, Leepson said, he had a temper.

“So he overcame a lot to keep that Navy career and become a commodore,” said Leepson.


Battle Scars

This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. (CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith via Wikimedia)

This colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) reveals some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion.
(CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith via Wikimedia)

With the news that Maryland will be home to some of the latest efforts to develop a vaccine to combat Ebola, the deadly outbreak taking place on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is seemingly getting closer and closer.

At American Jewish World Service, the outbreak resulted in a halt in regular programming in order to host emergency funding for the organization’s partners in West Africa.

“In Liberia we have grassroots organizations on the ground that have been doing organizing, fighting for women’s rights, fighting for land rights,” said Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS. The organization provided the extra funds to the already-established groups they work with on a regular basis that have, in recent weeks, turned their attention to combating the spread of Ebola.

“They are human rights and anti-poverty groups that are community-based, so the people in those organizations know their own communities, and they are better equipped, I think, probably than anybody to step forward and do public health outreach, public health education, disease prevention,” she added.

Having worked in Liberia for years, AJWS recognized that a general mistrust in government can make public education difficult. The groups the organization has chosen to fund will use the money to operate largely through person-to-person outreach and radio programming to teach people how to recognize symptoms of the virus and what steps to take when they come into contact with someone who might have the illness.

Though AJWS only works in one country that is experiencing an outbreak, Liberia, Messinger said she and her staff are also working with community organizations in neighboring countries to educate people before the problem spreads.

“We’re actually in the process, I believe, of making a grant to one group that we have worked with for a long time in Senegal,” she said. “This is a group that basically does public organizing and education. They’re journalists and rappers, and they use music” to raise public awareness.

While Messinger and AJWS were proud of the more than $100,000 they raised in just one week to combat the outbreak, the news hasn’t all been good.

AJWS doesn’t send volunteers to its Liberia office on a regular basis, but it does organize regular donor trips that allow those who help fund the programs to see their dollars at work. Last month, the group announced the cancellation of a February 2015 trip to Liberia.

“I don’t think a long line of people are ready to go over to a country that they’ve, in most cases, probably never been to and don’t know anything about to put on a protective suit and try to reach people who might potentially infect them with a terminal disease,” she said.

Meanwhile, this week in Bethesda, the National Institutes of Health began early stage trials of a vaccine intended to prevent infection by the Ebola virus.

Twenty people will participate in the first round of trials using human patients. Guidelines require that subjects be healthy adults not infected with the virus. The trial will monitor the subjects’ immune response to the drug.

“There is an urgent need for a protective Ebola vaccine, and it is important to establish that a vaccine is safe and spurs the immune system to react in a way necessary to protect against infection,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases researcher, in a statement. “The NIH is playing a key role in accelerating the development and testing of investigational Ebola vaccines.”

The key to prevention is through public health education, Fauci added, but a vaccine would be a great tool to use alongside tools like adequate protective equipment and quarantine.

According to a release by the NIH, the vaccine delivers one fragment of Ebola’s genetic material to the patient’s cells. Instead of replicating, the fragment is met with an immune response in the vaccine recipient. The individual cannot be infected with Ebola, the release stated.

Prior to the launch of the human trial, the vaccine was tested on primates, a trial that the organization said was successful.


‘Robbery, Extortion, Trafficking’

Sen. Marco Rubio (left) and Sen. Bob Casey (Consolidated News Photos/Newscom, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

Sen. Marco Rubio (left) and Sen. Bob Casey
(Consolidated News Photos/Newscom, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom)

With concern over the apparent growing strength and spread of the Islamic State, the terror group that has beheaded two American journalists in as many weeks, Sens. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), despite the Senate’s summer recess, have sent a joint letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling on the administration to target all aspects of the Islamic State’s operation funding and to have the Treasury Department classify the group as a Transnational Criminal Organization (TCO).

The senators praised current efforts by the administration to combat the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, in the letter, but they expressed concern that the jihadi group remains a threat to both the region and U.S. national security interests.

“ISIS’s criminal activities — robbery, extortion, and trafficking — have helped the organization become the best-funded terrorist group in history,” the senators wrote. “This wealth has helped expand their operational capacity and incentivized both local and foreign fighters to join them.”

The senators’ letter described some of the methods used by the terror group to fund itself.

The “cash flow from this criminal enterprise relies on smuggling routes and black market sales. Reporting indicates that some smuggling routes cross through other countries in the region, which, like the United States, have a clear national security interest in maintaining stability,” Casey and Rubio wrote. “Additionally, there are reports that some government officials in the region have helped to facilitate this illicit cross-border trade.”

The black market the senators referred to is believed to have sprouted as a result of the region’s growing instability, a consequence of the civil war in Syria and the marginalization of minorities, specifically Iraq’s Sunni Muslims by outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s majority Shiite Muslim administration in Baghdad.

The Islamic State is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was led by the late Jordanian militant Islamist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The group’s extreme viciousness led al-Qaeda to cut ties with it, and, according to Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, most of al-Qaeda’s deep-pocketed, Gulf-based terror financiers remained with the parent organization, forcing the Islamic State to adopt unorthodox revenue methods.

At first glance, the senators’ request that the administration cut off the group’s funding sources looked to some like political posturing. The Islamic State, after all, was classified by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2004, and its assets within the United States’ control were frozen. That designation further established sanctions for cooperating economically with the group.

The State Department has not yet replied to the senators’ letter, but one Senate staffer familiar with the letter said the administration’s reply might be that it already has all the tools necessary to restrict funding, given the Islamic State’s current designation, and is using them.

Some, however, say the administration could do more.

“I think there are [additional] things we can do to try and cut off the funding; it’s really hard,” said Austin Long, assistant professor in security policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “Even when there were 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq at the height of the surge, we couldn’t cut off all the funding to al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State.”

When a group is designated a TCO, its operations are restricted as outlined in Executive Order 13581, which prevents members of TCO-designated organizations, and those aiding and abetting them, from transferring, paying, exporting or withdrawing assets in the United States “or in an overseas branch of a U.S. entity.” Some of the groups presently listed as TCOs include the Brothers’ Circle (Eurasia), Camorra (Italy), Yakuza (Japan), Los Zetas (Mexico), Yamaguchi-Gumi (Japan) and Mara Salvatrucha (El Salvador).

Casey and Rubio are part of a larger group of lawmakers pushing to include the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah under TCO classification in the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act. The bill was passed unanimously by the House in July and is awaiting approval from the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former terrorism finance analyst at the Treasury Department, said that the additional designation would allow for a broader scope to investigate and cut off the group’s funding sources.

“It allows the intelligence community to work with a broader array of actors to counter [the Islamic State], and it allows for the FBI to have a greater role as well,” said Schanzer. “It basically widens the ability of the United States government to act on multiple levels with multiple players inside and outside the United States. If it’s considered a criminal organization, the FBI can look into whatever assets may be here. So, in other words, it becomes a warfare issue as well as a criminal one.”

Operating like an organized crime family, the Islamic State has surprised — and even, in a dark sense, impressed — the international community with its numerous creative methods to fund itself.

“IS has managed to successfully translate territorial control in northern Syria and portions of Iraq into a means of revenue generation,” said a Treasury Department spokesperson. “IS generates a large portion of its revenue from smuggling, extortion and robbery in areas under the group’s control as well as from ransoms received for hostages it has kidnapped. The group also benefits from extortion-derived proceeds from Iraqi and Syrian oil resources.”

Taking a page from al-Qaeda in Iraq’s former playbook, it has developed sophisticated fundraising tactics to make use of the resources in the areas they conquer. Once in control of a city or resource rich area, it threatens the local population with violence and seizes control of basic resources such as water and other necessities, said experts.

“The common assumption has been for a long time, and I don’t know where it comes from, but there are a lot of people who have surmised that IS’s funding comes from various Gulf individuals or a number of different Gulf governments including Qatar and Kuwait. This is not true,” said Lee Smith, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “There has been some money in the past, but this is not the main source of IS’s funding. The main source of funding comes from the fact that IS sells oil on the black market. That’s the No. 1 source of income. The No. 2 source of IS income is its extortion rackets in towns it runs — and it runs a few, including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, which are both fairly large Arab cities.”

IS’s single most profitable venture is the selling of oil that is produced in areas under the group’s control. Upon occupying an oil field or oil-producing city, the group makes the local populace an offer it can’t refuse, said Columbia’s Long.

“That’s what they try to do. People don’t always cooperate, but in general, if somebody says, ‘We’re going to keep paying your salary, just keep showing up for work [because] the alternative might be something bad happens to you, then you can either keep showing up for work or you can become a refugee, and I think a decent number of people don’t want to become refugees understandably,” explained Long, who previously served in Iraq as an analyst and adviser to the Multinational Force Iraq and the U.S. military.

Much of the oil is then sold internally to the Syrian and Iraqi residents of Islamic State-occupied territories.

“People have lots of cars,” said Long. “Iraq [is] just like every modern country but in some sense it is more dependent on [oil]. You need trucks to move food around — without gasoline, the economy grinds to a halt.”

The rest of the oil is smuggled out and sold abroad and, surprisingly, some of the buyers include opposing governments, such as the Syrian regime and Turkey.

“That’s a pretty typical feature of Arab warfare,” said Smith. “People make all sorts of deals with all sorts of different people.”

Determining who exactly is bypassing sanctions and buying oil from IS sources — or even exactly how much of it is being bought — is difficult to determine.

“The oil could be going across the border in Turkey and the Turks maybe aren’t asking too many question about who it comes from, hypothetically, because of course it won’t be necessarily somebody waving the Islamic State flag who drives the tanker truck across the border,” said Long.

According to a recent estimate by BBC News, the Islamic State exports about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from about $25 to $45 a barrel — a significant discount from the current international price of around $100 a barrel.

Casey and Rubio’s letter mentions that some of the Islamic State’s funding is supported by allied countries in the region, and Schanzer sees room for the United States to do more to pressure these nations, specifically Turkey, into doing more to crackdown on this illicit trade, even though Turkish officials have publicly denied that country’s involvement and condemned the terror group.

“If you look at the map, you will see that IS maintains a presence all along the eastern Turkish frontier, just on the other side of the border, and we don’t have definitive proof that there’s been direct assistance, but anecdotally we continue to hear that there are individuals and entities operating on the other side of the Turkish border who are facilitating this activity,” said Schanzer. “I think that it is fair to say at this point that Turkey’s permissive border policies over the last two years or more have led to a rise in jihadi groups’ ability to finance their operations, arm their fighters and provide other assistance to these groups.” contributed to this story.


Politics in Song

090514_capital-stepsThe Capitol Steps will highlight Beth El Congregation’s Evening of Celebration on Sept. 14.

The political satire group was formed in 1981 in Washington, D.C., as a group of Senate staffers putting on a show for a Christmas party and has since expanded to a 20-member troupe that has performed in all 50 states. While most shows focus on politics on the national level, some, like the upcoming show at Beth El, feature some extra touches.

The 90-minute show will take on some subjects related to Israel and Judaism, something the troupe’s five Jewish members were qualified to help with.

“We sing Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to the tune of ‘Embraceable You,’ but instead we sing “Erasable Jew,’” said Brad Van Grack, a current member with 23 years’ experience in the troupe.

The job for Van Grack and the other performers is full time. In addition to Friday and Saturday pre-show rehearsals, they must constantly practice their parts and keep up with the news of the day. Because politics is an ever-changing topic, the shows change often, and performers are constantly learning new material.

While Van Grack came from a background in performance art, many of the troupe members have direct experience in Washington politics. All told, the Steps’ website boasts, the group has a combined experience of 62 years spent in 18 congressional offices.

This month’s performance at Beth El won’t be the first for The Capitol Steps, but it will feature some material new to the Baltimore crowd.

“We’ve got a little bit about the IRS and the email situation, we touch on immigration, we talk about NSA spying,” said Van Grack, in addition to skits about Greece and the Redskins’ name controversy and a new song that plays on Pharrell William’s Spring 2014 hit song “Happy.”


Moving On

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague's chief rabbi amid  reports about his love life. (Provided)

Rabbi Karol Sidon stepped down as Prague’s chief rabbi amid reports about his love life.

PRAGUE — When the novel “Altschul’s Method” hit the shelves in Czech bookstores in March, it was hailed as a brilliant political and psychological thriller combining elements of science fiction, alternate history and Jewish mysticism.

But it became a true literary sensation when it was revealed a week later that the book’s supposed author, Chaim Cigan, was a pseudonym for Karol Sidon, the longtime chief rabbi of Prague.

Sidon had explained that he was writing under a pseudonym mainly to draw a distinction between his literary work and his duties for Prague’s Jewish community.

“Such writing does not befit a rabbi,” he told a Czech news website.

“Being a rabbi has its limits,” Sidon explained in the interview. “I won’t lie; I wanted to quit some time ago, and it will happen sooner or later.”

But it was more than a passion for literature that led Sidon to step down as chief rabbi in June, earlier than he had planned.

His resignation came amid reports that he had separated from his third wife and become engaged to one of his former conversion students.

Sidon’s departure marks the end of an era for the Prague Jewish community. The first post-communist chief rabbi of Prague, Sidon, a former dissident, symbolized the revival of Czech Jewry following decades in which religion was suppressed.

“His arrival at the post was crucial for the community,” said Charles Wiener, a former executive director of the Prague Jewish community who lives in Geneva, Switzerland. “All institutions in then-Czechoslovakia were in the shadow of communism and collaboration, and suddenly someone came who had not been collaborating but was in fact thrown out of the country by the communist authorities.”

But Sidon leaves behind a divided community struggling to overcome a conflict in which he played a prominent role.

The combination of a generational gap, religious disagreements, accusations of cronyism and personality conflicts contributed to intra-communal tensions during his tenure. A decade ago, Sidon was even removed from his post when a new communal leadership took charge, only to be reinstated when his allies regained control of the community.

In the wake of Sidon’s resignation, his friends have been notably quiet. Sidon and several other community leaders declined interview requests.

Jakub Roth, 41, who served as the Prague Jewish community’s deputy chair between 2005 and 2008 and has been a Sidon supporter, said the rabbi’s resignation had long been anticipated. But he would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Sidon’s decision.

Prague Jewish leaders have chosen Rabbi David Peter, 38, to succeed Sidon. A native of Prague, Peter is an Orthodox rabbi who returned to the Czech capital in 2011 after 13 years of studies in Israel.

Sidon also asked for an unpaid six-month leave from his duties in the largely ceremonial position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic. The head of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Petr Papousek, said that Sidon would return to the post after his hiatus.

Sidon, who just turned 72, is known for his scholarly demeanor and biting sense of humor. An Orthodox Jew, he focused much of his energy on encouraging greater religious observance among Prague’s largely secular Jews, who are estimated to number some 6,000, though only about 1,800 are officially registered as community members.

Sidon’s tenure has seen the growth of a small but active traditionally observant segment of the city’s Jewish community. But Sidon also has accumulated critics during his more than two decades in office.

Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of a liberal Prague Jewish congregation, Bejt Simcha, who sits on the Prague Jewish community board, believes it would make sense if Sidon retired from his rabbinical duties altogether.

“If he’s embarked on a new life, literary or private, he should pursue it,” she said. “We should thank him for his efforts. He did what he could. But a self-searching, three-times-divorced, egocentric man cannot really be considered a serious figure respected by his community or a good rabbi.”

Sidon became the chief rabbi of both Prague and Czechoslovakia in 1992, less than three years after the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia. A respected writer and ally of Czech dissident and future president Vaclav Havel, Sidon had lived in exile in Germany, where he studied at the College of Jewish Studies in Heidelberg.

By 1990, Sidon’s fellow dissidents and intellectuals had replaced discredited communist-era officials at the Jewish community and asked him to take over the rabbinate. He agreed, going on to study at the Ariel Institute in Jerusalem and to be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi before finally returning to Prague.

Sidon’s path to Judaism was not straightforward. The son of a Christian mother and a Jewish father who was murdered in the Terezin concentration camp in 1944, Sidon formally converted to Judaism in 1978. At that time he found himself under immense pressure from the secret police after signing the Czechoslovakian human rights manifesto Charter 77.

“What made me want to convert was my experience with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and with Charter 77,” Sidon told the Terezin Initiative Newsletter in 2005. “To put it short, I realized that I had a soul, and my commitment to God emerged from that.”

Although Sidon only adopted Orthodox Judaism during his rabbinical studies in Israel, his strategy for reviving the Prague Jewish community after four decades of communism consisted of focusing on observance of halachah, or Jewish religious law, and building up religious life.

In the eyes of the public, Sidon soon became the symbol of a new chapter in the life of Czech Jews and of their opposition to communism. But his approach met with opposition from some community members.

“He pushed us into an Orthodox box, which drove many people away,” Michaela Vidlakova, a Holocaust survivor and a longtime community member, said.

Sidon clashed with more religiously liberal Prague Jews who wanted communal recognition of non-Orthodox congregations and of those who had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.

Eventually, the community offered those who traced their Jewish identities only from their fathers what was called “extraordinary” membership in 2003, without the possibility of running for leadership positions. By that time, however, controversies over control of the real estate-rich community’s finances and other issues had raised tensions between Sidon and supporters of Tomas Jelinek, who was elected community chairman in 2001.

In 2004, Jelinek moved to oust Sidon as Prague chief rabbi, alleging that he had failed to carry out his duties.

“He wasn’t able to groom a successor, there were always problems with kosher food at the community and scores of other things,” Jelinek said.

Jelinek appointed Rabbi Manis Barash, a representative of the U.S.-based Chabad Hasidic movement, to take over Prague’s famed Altneu Synagogue. But in November of that year, Jelinek suffered a staggering defeat in a communal vote that eventually resulted in him being removed as leader.

Emotions continued to run high for several months. In April 2005, members of the Sidon and Barash minyans had a fistfight during Shabbat prayers at the Altneu Synagogue.

A year-and-a-half after his initial ouster, Sidon was reinstated as Prague’s chief rabbi.

Since then, the community has become more pluralistic, with several liberal leaders having been elected to the board. At the same time, a number of people have left to form their own group, the Jewish Liberal Union.

Sidon had been planning to retire in the fall, but on June 23 the Prague Jewish community suddenly announced he would be stepping down, citing his age.

The announcement came a day after a Czech Jewish blog run by Jelinek reported that Sidon had separated from his wife and was in a new relationship.

Sidon’s critics circulated a rumor that the Prague beit din, or rabbinical court, ordered him to step down. But the court’s chair, Rabbi Noah Landsberg, who lives in Israel, said that Sidon himself offered to step down.

“He sent me a letter some time ago and said he had some personal problems, and he also mentioned his age. The court agreed,” Landsberg said.

Sidon’s successor will be following a rabbi who has left a large mark on the Prague community.

During his term as Prague chief rabbi, Sidon has translated a number of religious texts into Czech, including the Pentateuch, a Haggadah, a siddur and a machzor. He also played a major role in establishing the Lauder School of Prague, which combines kindergarten, elementary and high school, enrolling some 150 students.

“Rabbi Sidon has made the community more visible and played an important role in establishing very good relations with the country’s new democratic governments,” said Alena Heitlinger, the Czech-born, Canada-based author of “In the Shadows of the Holocaust and Communism: Czech and Slovak Jews Since 1945.”

But she added that his focus on Orthodoxy has left those who are not Jewish according to halachah not feeling completely welcome.

“It is still an issue,” Heitlinger said.

Wiener, however, said that Sidon should not be blamed for disappointing some of the more liberal members of the community.

“The problem was on their side rather than his,” he said, “because as an Orthodox rabbi, he could not have really behaved differently.”