Eastern Europe splits ' destroy Jewry'

By Simon Rocker, October 6, 2011

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism gave a new lease to Jewish life in eastern Europe. But the communities that began to revive in the 1990s appear to be struggling to cope with the challenges of pluralism, according to the first two of a series of reports on continental Jewry issued by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR).

Uniquely in Europe, the dominant religious strand in Hungarian Jewry – estimated to be between 80,000 and 150,000 – is Neolog, an early type of Conservatism, which controls the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities; outside the federation, there are a few Orthodox, Reform and Chabad synagogues.

But progress is being obstructed by unnecessary competition and a lack of co-operation, exacerbated by disagreements over who is a Jew. According to one Neolog representative, the Jewish status of as much as 40 per cent of Hungarian Jewry is not accepted by other sections of the community.

"It's the same elsewhere in Europe," the Neolog member said. "So if they are unable to find some solution to this problem, it will lead to the destruction of the entire Jewish community."

András Kovács and Aletta Forrás-Biró, authors of the JPR report on Hungary, say there is a "dire need" for an umbrella body able to construct a cross-communal approach. Although traditional Zionist youth movements and the Jewish students' union have been in decline, there are 1,000 students in three Jewish schools in Budapest and organisations like Marom, which put on events - although not always of a Jewish nature -for the young Jews who congregate in downtown pubs .

One shining beacon is Hungary's own Limmud conference, inspired by the British model, whose pluralistic format is seen as a way forward. "The secret of the success of Limmud," said one interviewee, "is that it has managed to make people feel that whoever is interested in Judaism here can do anything connected to it."

Limmud also come up trumps in Poland, where last year's conference attracted several hundreds with a waiting list as twice as long, according to Konstanty Gebert and Helena Datner, who wrote the JPR report on Poland.

The number of "Jewishly active" people in the country is estimated at 15,000, with a similar number who do not take part in Jewish activities.

While the revival of Jewish life is "something of a miracle," the authors say, Polish Jewry is "internally torn between the attractiveness of Orthodoxy, which was strongly supported in the past…but nevertheless represents a minority within the community, and the needs of the majority of Poland's Jews."

The majority look more to Reform and secular Jewish models, but "struggle to find enough of real substance there".

"Creating a communal environment that welcomes and encourages multiple religious approaches will increase the number of gateways into Jewish life," they state, "and reduce the number of obstacles that deter many from becoming more involved."

Last updated: 2:09pm, October 6 2011