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Europe’s Jews: Endangered But Empowered

The climate is tense, but Europe’s Jewish leaders are more engaged than ever

Alan Gill
August 15, 2014
A girl waves an Israel national flag and a French national flag during a pro-Israel demonstration organized by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) outside the Jewish state's embassy on July 31, 2014. (DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
A girl waves an Israel national flag and a French national flag during a pro-Israel demonstration organized by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) outside the Jewish state's embassy on July 31, 2014. (DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

For many observers, Europe is once again on a path to becoming Judenrein. Rocked by a series of ugly attacks targeting Jews and the rise of political extremism, the fatal shooting of four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels, and widespread riots as the war between Israel and Hamas raged, all the signs point towards a possibly significant departure of Jews. Government leaders, commentators and Jewish organizations laudably demand high-level interventions and the need to protect Jewish facilities and Jews themselves from the onslaught.

Yet there is another fascinating and important side to this dynamic—Jewish empowerment on a scale never imagined after the Holocaust and decades of Communist oppression. In fact, for the last three decades, Europe’s emerging Jewish leaders have been molded at a Jewish summer camps, educational and leadership development classes, synagogues, holiday festivals, and other activities that were created and invested in, by the tens of millions, by organizations and philanthropists who wanted to help revive Jewish civilization in this part of the world.

One of those outstanding catalysts resides on a 17-acre patch of land in rural Szarvas, Hungary where every summer for 25 years, more than 1,000 Jews have come together to sing Hebrew songs, learn and innovate Jewish customs, and give new life to a people who are under siege today.

“While we’re concerned with the deterioration of democracy and growing anti-Semitism and xenophobia across Europe, I’ve found that Jews around the continent have remained defiant,” said Alexander Friedman, the director of the Szarvas camp, which was founded in 1989 by the visionary Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or the JDC.

Part of that defiance, and the success of the camp and similar Jewish programming around Europe is its pluralistic and egalitarian outlook. By meshing Jewish religion, ethics, history, and contemporary affairs with the realities of what “being Jewish in Europe” today can mean, these initiatives are meeting Jews where they are. As an example, a number of the participants in these activities only recently found out they were Jewish; may only have one Jewish parent or grandparents; or come from families who have just embraced a Jewishness long considered taboo in their countries.

Perhaps most impressively, many alumni of these programs have gone on to lead their individual local communities and act as advocates for new outlets for Jewish innovation and battling intolerance. These include Alexander Oscar, the president of the Bulgarian Jewish community who helped plan his community’s first public Jewish street festival this year (a first in the community’s history) and Mina Pasalijic, who founded Haver Serbia, an NGO that educates the public about Judaism as a step to combat discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Pasalijic recalls, “My grandmother on my mother’s side, who was a Holocaust survivor, lived with us while I was young. But growing up, I wasn’t really aware that I was Jewish, because it wasn’t something mentioned in our home. Szarvas helped develop my Jewish identity and it affected a lot in shaping me into the person I am today.”

And this dynamic is being played out across Central and Eastern Europe, as these leaders self-assuredly create public Jewish celebrations, including a blossoming Jewish film festival industry, that attracts unaffiliated Jews and introduces them to the Jewish experience. Street festivals like 7@Nite in Poland, Judafest in Hungary, and Days of Jewish Culture in Kharkov annually draw tens of thousands to Jewish food tastings and cooking stations, text study in cafes and theaters, and Jewish musical performances that can whet the appetite for more engagement. Add to this the number of new Jewish kindergartens, Jewish Community Centers, and youth engagement activities that are thriving, and you find a Jewish Europe that is discovering itself, and its voice.

To that end, and at a critically important juncture in European history marked by political instability and economic crisis, these efforts also produce full-throated and strong Jewish communities that are battling hatred and, in some cases, their own governments over their rights as citizens. Just look at the debates over kosher slaughter, circumcision, and Holocaust memorialization in Europe. Adept Jewish leadership—with support from local and international partners—are leading the charge and confidently asserting their identity. Who would have thought that the Jewish community of Hungary, for example, would bravely take on nationalist efforts to erase Hungarian complicity in the extermination of Jews under the Nazis? But it is happening.

It’s easy to forget these achievements in light of the rising tide of anti-Semitism today. But when considering the present and future of European Jewry, it’s important to take into consideration not only the very real and worrying challenges they face, but also how much has been accomplished in such a short time and the remarkable reemergence of Jewish life in places where it was almost extinguished.

Alan Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

Alan Gill is the CEO for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known as the JDC.

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