The European union that bucks the trend

By Marcus Dysch, January 10, 2013
British students in Girona, Spain, during the ECJS trip

British students in Girona, Spain, during the ECJS trip

An industrial estate on the outskirts of Barcelona may seem an unlikely setting for one of the year’s biggest Jewish social events.

But for 350 students and young professionals from across Europe, the four-day break provided a lifeline to help them meet like-minded Jews for friendship, romance, and boozy revelry.

The European Centre for Jewish Students’ annual New Year conference and party was a fiesta of sightseeing and partying with a dash of religious discussion.

Taking over a hotel in the Spanish city, ECJS operated almost as a touring community, made up of Jews aged from their early 20s to mid 30s. They meet as many as four times a year at events organised by the Brussels-based group’s executive director Zevi Ives and his wife, Sara.

“We want to get as many Jews in this age group in Europe involved as possible,” explained Mrs Ives. “We have not yet figured out how to get people who have no affiliation or Jewish involvement at all. There needs to be a way to reach them.

“For most people here this is their only chance to find someone Jewish to marry.”

After a brief bus tour of the Catalan capital and a few quick introductions, the group settled down for Shabbat with candle lighting and a melodious Friday night service. Amsterdam-based Rabbi Menachem Sebbag, chief

Jewish chaplain to the armed forces of the Netherlands, flew in with his family for the weekend and gaves a lecture on the Mayans’ prophecy that the world would end in 2012.

Over the course of the weekend Rabbi Sebbag discussed topics including relationships, vegetarianism and Rambam with the students.

Participants spanned the religious spectrum. No one was forced to attend services or observe Shabbat, but attendance at the services was high, with many people relishing the rare chance to daven with a sizeable congregation.

A sangria-making workshop, led by members of the Spanish delegation, helped pass Saturday afternoon and gave further opportunities for the students to get to know each other.

But it was after Shabbat that the weekend got into full swing, with the tour party decamping to the noisy Cafe Noir bar downtown. The drinks flowed freely as British, American and Israeli dance tracks played seamlessly and the revellers mixed with their new friends.

The number of British Jews making the trip to Spain was surprising, and marked a noticeable increase on last year’s ECJS New Year event in Athens.

Around 50 Brits were in Barcelona, with at least half of them counting themselves as ECJS veterans who have taken part in two or more trips around Europe with the group.

Those figures perhaps raise questions over the provision of social events for single Jewish young professionals in Britain, particularly those living in communities outside London, including Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. All three northern cities have representatives at the Spain event.

Essex-based entrepreneur Adrian Conway said he had made dozens of friends, travelled to weddings, and stayed with new acquaintances since first learning of ECJS more than a decade ago.

“There’s only a limited number of events and organisations in London. You tend to start seeing the same people all the time.

“In London everyone seems frightened to talk to new people, but I like it here because you meet people from all over the world. There is a real need for a service like this.”

Some British groups could learn a lot from the ECJS approach to putting people at ease. Perhaps it was the effect of being away from home shores and an “on tour” mentality that relaxed the party-goers, but the atmosphere was far more chilled than at London’s stand-offish, strained social events for students and singles.

With sore heads the following morning the group departed on a longer tour of Barcelona. The first stop was the city’s main Orthodox synagogue, where a warm welcome was waiting.

ECJS participants at Barcelona's main Orthodox synagogue

ECJS participants at Barcelona's main Orthodox synagogue

Local dignitaries addressed the tourists from the bimah, with at least one of the speakers later admitting to shaking when she spoke, such was the Spaniards’ delight to suddenly have hundreds of young people filling their shul.

In a short but moving ceremony the ark was opened and the community’s ornately decorated sifrei Torah brought out and displayed. Unintentional it may be, but ECJS’s impact on the Jewish residents of the cities the group visits should not be underestimated. Last year events took place as far afield as Porto, Malta and Rome.

Later, after a tour of Barcelona’s ancient Jewish quarter — the Call — and with the city’s cathedral shadowing him from the warm winter sun, Menachem Sarusie, a 26-year-old Masters student from Copenhagen, explained his reasons for taking part in his first ECJS trip.

“It’s a very small and tight-knit community in Copenhagen. If you are talking about making friends and meeting girls there are not many opportunities. If you want to meet a Jewish partner it’s not easy. Many Jewish people from Denmark move abroad, to Britain, Israel or America.

“This has been really nice. I’ve met people from all over Europe. I like the style of ECJS — it’s different, but in a good way and integrates religion with culture. It has been very impressive with the mix of talks and the nightclubs.”

Mr Sarusie believes ECJS can play a crucial role in combating intermarriage.

His thoughts were echoed the following morning by Swiss national Shirley Feldmann. Over breakfast she explained the group’s importance.

“There are not that many Jewish people my age in Zurich. Most of the time I’m around non-Jews and there’s not much planned for Jewish students,” said the 25-year-old, who is taking a computational linguistics degree.

“It is more fun to come here. I know some of the people already. My parents are supporting me financially to be here because I am not working yet. I always feel with ECJS that I have had a good trip. I have even met other people from Switzerland who I didn’t know. That’s good because we can stay in touch after the trip.”

If the gratitude shown by Barcelona’s Jewish community was touching, the welcome afforded by the non-Jewish residents of Girona was no less remarkable. When five coaches full of the European visitors rolled into the town, 60 kilometres from Spain’s second largest city, even mayor Carles Puigdemont came out to greet them.

He took to the stage at Girona’s historic grand theatre to praise the tourists and thank them profusely for visiting a town which once had a 25 per cent Jewish population and five functioning synagogues.

“Girona has an old and great Jewish heritage,” he told the audience. “We try to link our present and future with the preserving of this heritage. We have a strong, spiritual link to the Jewish people.”

Sadly Girona’s Museum of Jewish History, which was next on the tour itinerary, was rather underwhelming. But it did lead to a quick wander through the fascinating, narrow backstreets which were home to 12th century Spanish Jews, before their expulsion in 1492.

The stunning view from the top of the Carolingian city walls provided a breathtaking climax to the weekend’s tours. It also left Israeli student Amir Pri-Or in pensive mood.

Sipping a coffee in Girona’s main square, the 31-year-old considered the challenges posed by leaving his home near Haifa to study biomedical analysis in the Netherlands.

“When I came to Europe I realised I needed to find people with a similar background to my own, but most of the Jewish people in Utrecht are much older than I am. The average age is around 60. Most of my friends there are not Jewish,” he said.

“It’s nice that we are in Barcelona but I have been here before so my priority is to make some new friends.”

Mr Pri-Or was slightly surprised by the number of French and British Jews in attendance: “There are big communities of Jews in some countries in Europe, but in Holland, Belgium, Denmark and others, where the community is smaller, people need more help to find new Jewish friends. This has been a massively positive experience for me.”

A quota-style system operated by ECJS means no more than one-third of participants can come from any one country. The number of those on both sides of the Channel who are keen to take part, however, means many are placed on waiting lists for the most popular events of the year.

As preparations for the New Year’s Eve gala dinner and ball bustled around her in the hotel lobby, Mrs Ives explained how the couple’s passion for helping young Jews drives the organisation.

“We are doing this more for people who come from the smaller communities. People come for different reasons. Our purpose is to create a network of Jews throughout Europe. Those in the age group we work with do not have much on offer to them.”

But managing the operations of the fast-growing group is not easy. Mr and Mrs Ives and their small team of colleagues — many of whom are volunteers or relatively low-paid temporary staff — are engaged in a constant struggle for financial security.

Support comes from organisations including the Jewish Agency, European Jewish Development Fund and European Jewish Union. The Barcelona get-together was backed by the EJDF, the philanthropic Matanel Foundation and Fundacion Dorset, and, as you might expect for a student event, the Stolichnaya vodka company.

But, said Mrs Ives, that alone is not enough: “We can handle the demand. There’s a high turnover of people. We are limited by funding though.

“We had a large fund to help us provide subsidies for eastern Europeans, but that is now gone. Some participants even sponsor others to come because they want to help out. Ideally we would offer cheaper prices for students and east Europeans, but right now we cannot do it. We have to be really careful with our spending.”

Those taking part in the Barcelona trip paid, on average, around £250 for their rooms, food, tours and club nights, plus the cost of their flights.

As a local band set up its equipment ahead of a performance which would bring the curtain down not only on the ECJS weekend, but on 2012 altogether, Mrs Ives looked to the future.

“People come and make a lot of friends. After the event many people have reunions at home with the new friends they have made. If participants are travelling around Europe they get in touch with each other and meet up locally using Facebook and other social media.”

To the untrained eye the entire event may have looked like a four-day jaunt in the winter sun, but ECJS’s raison d’être is far more complex, and important, than that.

For many participants it was a rare opportunity to escape everyday concerns, including rising antisemitism in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, and instead enjoy what the majority of British Jews take for granted — a thriving community experience of their own.

Last updated: 12:00pm, January 10 2013