‘France is a great place for Jews to live,” the young woman on film was saying. “It’s a challenging environment but a welcoming environment.”
The audience practically gasped on hearing her remarks, which seemed so far removed from their expectations of Jewish life in France.
That moment took place during the screening at LimmudUK in England last month of an 11-minute film documenting new Jewish initiatives for and by young people in Europe. And the crowd reaction — though perhaps on a more dramatic scale — was not unlike the response American Jews have to recent reports that a renaissance in Jewish life is taking place among young European Jews.
According to a new survey, the continent is “witnessing a revival of contemporary Jewish life through the emergence of hundreds of new initiatives reaching hundreds of thousands of people.”
The report, published last fall by Jewish Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based incubator for Jewish innovation, notes at the outset that “conventional discussions of Europe often emphasize anti-Semitism, Jewish continuity and anti-Israel activism. While we do not dismiss or diminish those concerns, we know that these are only part of the story. The European Jewry we know is confident, vibrant and growing.”
Such positive news presents a challenge to those of us (and I include myself, until recently) who essentially had written off European Jewry.
We tend to think of that population as having a tragic past culminating in the Holocaust; an embattled present, with anti-Semitism fueled by Arab Muslims a reality; and the bleakest of futures, given an aging demographic threatened by intermarriage and assimilation.
That’s basically how I saw it until I participated in two eye-opening experiences in Europe in the last six months. The first was a weeklong workshop in Stockholm in August sponsored by Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. There I met more than two dozen men and women in their 20s and 30s who were actively involved, with the help of Paideia, in pursuing their own Jewish roots and seeking to create or sustain educational or cultural projects in their own European communities.
And last month’s LimmudUK conference, attracting more than 2,000 people, mostly from England, impressed me with a level of volunteerism and commitment to Jewish learning and culture I had never seen before.
The Jumpstart report notes that “quietly, and in small pockets across the continent, Jewish social entrepreneurs have been experimenting with new forms of communities and organizations designed to engage a new generation of Jews, their partners and friends in meaningful Jewish experiences.”
Emphasis On Culture
In the U.S., much attention has been given to the creation and growth of “start-up” ventures here, primarily among young people, in the last decade. But according to the report on European innovations published by Jumpstart, which also surveyed the American groups, “there are more Jewish start-ups per capita in Europe than in America.” That translates to more than 200 organizations founded in the last decade and engaging about 250,000 people.
This revival of contemporary Jewish life is even more impressive when one realizes that much of Europe does not have the culture of Jewish charitable giving or the degree of backing of major foundations and philanthropists that we have in the U.S.
As a result, the scale of the European start-ups is more modest, and more local in scope. Most describe their primary focus as “Jewish education, arts and culture, or community-building,” according to the Jumpstart report. “Inter-group and interreligious relations are a higher priority than diversity issues within the Jewish community.”
A sampling of the start-ups in Europe today: several Jewish-Muslim dialogue groups, including one centered on hip-hop music; Jewish Salons, a social network group active in Amsterdam, Vienna and Prague; Jewish theater groups in Poland and England; a musical group in Germany that combines Yiddish and contemporary songs; and Jewish Heritage Travel, which trains young guides to show visitors not only the historic landmarks of Ukraine but vibrant contemporary life as well.
“These young people are proud of their communities,” noted Justin Korda, executive director of ROI (Return On Investment), the Israel-based group fostering young Jewish innovators from around the world. “Even in places like Poland and Ukraine, where the past has been horrid, they are proud of what is happening today” in terms of Jewish life. “The visits they are training contemporary guides to offer are not March of the Living”-type tours of Holocaust devastation.
“There is a real resurgence and interest in Jewish life,” he said.
Paideia, funded by the Swedish government, ROI, supported by U.S. philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and the London-based Pears Foundation, all focus on innovation. ROI and Pears sponsored the Jumpstart report.
Amy Philip, deputy director of the Pears Foundation, said the challenge for philanthropists is “how do we ensure the sustainability of the projects and organizations” they are helping to create.
“Having spent the summer at Paideia with participants from all over Europe, I saw firsthand that there is an emerging community of innovators, and creating opportunities for them to come together to network and learn from each other and from American and Israeli Jews is vitally important.”
She added that innovation “can also come from within established organizations, many of which need our support to remain sustainable in the current financial climate, so we mustn’t focus our philanthropic resources solely on start-ups.”
She said it’s important “to avoid creating an opposition between ‘start-ups’ and ‘establishment’ — I think there are a lot more crossovers to be explored.”
Shawn Landres, the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart, noted that “most groups in Europe rely on volunteers and individual program grants, so it’s a more fragile system, one that survives from project to project. And there is probably more attrition in Europe, more efforts that just don’t make it.”
Lisa Capelouto, the founding director of JHub: The Jewish Social Action Hub, a group that supports innovative Jewish projects and organizations in the UK, said “funders in Europe tend to be more conservative and more inclined to support the traditional causes relating to education, welfare and Israel.” Among the six groups JHub supports, two promote volunteerism, one fights global poverty, one promotes Jewish-Arab cooperation, one calls for human rights efforts and another offers a website and resource guide for independent learning for people with disabilities.
More To Diaspora Than North America
The re-emergence of Jewish life among young Europeans should motivate American Jewish leaders to rethink the diaspora-Israel equation, which they tend to see as confined to North America and the Jewish state.
“We need a better global awareness,” said Jumptstart’s Landres, “and a sense of what European Jewish life has to offer.” Beyond the U.S. and Israel, he added, “Europe is the first and strongest case for a full-color Jewish world.”
Landres, who is based in Los Angeles but spent several years living in England and Slovakia, noted that Europe “complicates” our picture of Jewish peoplehood, which is framed around America and Israel.
Less centered around synagogues and religious practice, European Jewish life focuses more on arts, culture, history and heritage. And with high assimilation rates, many of the new start-ups deal with intermarriage by, in a sense, ignoring it. Their programs tend to be open to everyone.
Barbara Spectre, the American-born director of Paideia, refers to what is happening in Europe as “the dis-assimilation” of Jewish life, with even young people who are intermarried or not considered Jewish by halachic standards asserting their identity and exploring Jewish roots and culture. She calls for a change in “rhetoric and attitude” among Israeli and American Jewish leaders who refuse to “hear good news” about what she sees as “a great transformation taking place.”
At a time of increasing globalization and a decreasing Jewish diaspora population, it will be interesting to see if the many start-ups around the world connect, and if Israeli and American Jewish organizations and philanthropists extend their reach to European innovators.
There is no doubt that there is much they could learn from each other.