European Jewry alive and kicking


By Simon Rocker
December 27, 2013
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There are some people in the Jewish world who have written off European Jewry as a lost cause. But not everyone regards us as basically only a pool for potential aliyah.

Barbara Lerner Spectre, the founding director of a Stockholm-based institute of higher Jewish education, called Paideia, believes that a new kind of Jew is emerging on the continent and that they have something to contribute to Jewry as a whole.

Modern Jewish identity has largely been broken into three types, she explained at a Limmud session: religious, national or cultural – cultural meaning a “Woody Allen Jew”.

The new Jews of Europe can’t be quite categorised in any of these ways: they are highly committed, cosmopolitan, sophisticated and “hyphenated” – at home in their own country but regarding themselves as citizens of a minority culture within it. And, she stressed, “they are not going to leave Europe.”

Synagogues, she said, “may be the place where they gather”, but “the organising principle of their lives is not religion.”

Crucially, they also know that to actively Jewish and sustain Jewish communities “they have to become literate – they have to know the great Jewish books”.

Paideia itself is a unique institute in Europe, whose one-year progamme in has produced more than 400 graduates from 35 countries (including, I believe, at least two from the UK). It is an intensive course which attempts to give students a grounding in Jewish civilisation, with units in Hebrew, Bible and rabbinic sources and using classic methods of study such as chevruta – the close reading and discussion of texts with a partner.

This is “not Judaism light”, she said.

The word she has described them is “cultured”, rather than “cultural”, Jews.

In some central and eastern European communities, they represent people who, Jewishly speaking, have “stepped out of the closet” and chosen to connect more deeply with their Jewish roots.

“This is a story of dis-assimiliation”, she said.

No doubt, some will dismiss her projection of them as builders of a viable European Jewish future as optimistic.

But it’s refreshing to hear an educator with such idealism – especially one who has done so much to try to put her words into

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