Young activists lift the gloom over Jews in Europe
Celebrating Chanucah in Hungary, where Limmud has attracted a broad section of unaffiliated Jews
On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the European Union published a poll which showed a high level of anxiety among Jewish communities across the continent.
Two-thirds thought antisemitism was a problem in their country, three-quarters felt it had got worse in the past five years and nearly half of Jews in France and Hungary had considered leaving for safer shores.
The findings seemed to vindicate the pessimism already circulating in parts of the Israeli and American Jewish press. In an article for the online magazine Mosaic, Michel Gurfinkiel claimed that “the majority of European Jews… insist that catastrophe may lie ahead”.
In its annual report this year, the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute wondered if international agencies should start preparing for a mass aliyah from Europe.
The situation of continental Jewry will be very much to the fore at this year’s Limmud conference, with some 20 sessions devoted to it. But the focus will be less on gloomy prognoses than on exploring the continent’s active Jewish life, with some of the “social entrepreneurs” who have helped to create it.
Tamas Buchler, 29, an activist with Jewish and Israeli organisations in Budapest, Hungary, says he is frustrated at often “one-sided” depictions of European Jewry under threat.
Shabbat in Krakow. People across the continent are rediscovering their Jewish identity
At Limmud, he said, “I hope to expose people to the idea that central and east European Jewry has much more to offer than antisemitism and Holocaust heritage. We have exciting stuff going on.”
Anneli Radestad, who directs the one-year programme at Paideia, a Jewish educational institute in Stockholm, Sweden, said it can be “an uphill battle to make Americans and Israelis aware that Europe is not just a graveyard you pass on the way to Israel”.
Over the past 12 years, Paideia has taught 450 graduates from 35 different countries, training Jewish leaders and activists across the continent.
“A lot of young people are rediscovering their Jewish identity,” Ms Radestad said. “The question that is never asked is, how come we have all these young people dis-assimilating into Judaism? They seek out Jewish knowledge and Jewish activities, because they didn’t get it at home for two generations after the Shoah and with Communism.”
It is a phenomenon, which “ brings me joy and gives me optimism”, she added.
Jean-Jacques Wahl, from Paris, who is the secretary of the European Association for Jewish Culture, says the results of the recent antisemitism survey have to be read against the depressed mood in France generally. Many young Frenchmen and women, not just Jews, talk of leaving the country in search of better job prospects. For Jews, with family in Israel and other countries, the possibility of emigration may be easier, he said.
Despite the uncertainties, Paris — a city with a couple of hundred kosher restaurants — has “a flourishing Jewish life, more than ever”, he noted.
“I am speaking about cultural life — exhibitions, movies, and theatre with Jewish themes. People are not hiding themselves.”
Budapest, too, has experienced an upsurge in Jewish activity in recent years. “There is a Jewish event every day — a lecture, a study session, a concert,” Mr Buchler said.
For all that, a major problem of assimilation remains. “Eighty per cent of Hungarian Jews are still outside the organised Jewish community,” he said. “They would never go to a synagogue, or a Jewish school or educational programme.”
But Hungary’s own Limmud, which has been held over the past five years, has shown that it can “reach out to very different segments of the community”, he added. “There are people who have come who have not been to a Jewish event before.”
Limmud’s multi-faceted nature is also important for Jaime Casas, the founder of the first Progressive community in Andalucia, in Spain, and now a second-year rabbinic student at London’s Leo Baeck College.
He said. “Limmud recognises that Jewish identity is complex and diverse. Since we work together to offer such a huge event, I am optimistic for the future. Limmud is the inspiration and hope for the European Jewish community.”