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Young European Jews Asserting Identity, Against The Odds

Young European Jews Asserting Identity, Against The Odds

Swedish ‘incubator’ project training young leaders, resisting the notion that Jewish life is dying.

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

 Stockholm — When the tall Hungarian woman in the back of the room rose to speak, I could see the passion and flash of anger in her face. She was the first to raise her hand after my talk to 27 young men and women from both Eastern and Western Europe, participants in a 10-day program in the Swedish capital for academics and activists committed to enhancing Jewish life in their native countries.

I had been invited by the program sponsor, Paideia, the Swedish-based European Institute for Jewish Studies, to describe American Jewish life and attitudes toward European Jewry.

I was direct in my comments to the group, noting that we American Jews don’t tend to think about European Jewry often, and when we do, it is to lament its imminent demise, the victim of an aging, diminishing population, and a sharply disturbing increase in anti-Semitism.

We hear about attacks on synagogues and cemeteries, fear in France of walking in public with a kipa, British concern about Israel-related boycotts, and most recently, violence against the Jewish residents of Malmo, Sweden, by local Muslims.

The young woman respondent, Anita Bartha, 26, is a graduate student in Jewish studies in Budapest and the coordinator of a Hungarian Jewish youth organization. Like her fellow participants in the program, Paideia’s Project Incubator — an interactive workshop to hone plans for new community-centered initiatives —she is highly educated and deeply involved in Jewish cultural and renewal efforts on the local level.

She didn’t disagree with my observations but said she was “offended” that American Jews have a dismissive attitude toward European Jewry and fail to recognize the variety of small but exciting new programs percolating in communities throughout Europe.

Her comments were met with loud applause from the other participants in the program, several of whom echoed her sentiments and spoke of their own frustrating encounters with American Jewish funders who seem convinced that investing in European Jewry is a lost cause.

I’m afraid their perceptions are on target. And I basically felt the same way before coming to Paideia.

My visits to large, majestic synagogues in the European cities I’ve visited, including Copenhagen and Stockholm on this trip, only reinforced the impression that European Jewry’s long history — at times thriving, too often tragic — was coming to an end.

The elaborate structures, once filled with worshippers, now seem more like museums. Even those still open for prayer barely have a minyan for services, often only with the help of tourists.

But I learned that famed old synagogues are not the primary source of native Jewish life in Europe today. Chabad Lubavitch offers an impressive network of religious and social services, but its rabbis and leaders are for the most part imported from America. If you want to find the sparks of homegrown European talent and activity, speak to the more than 200 fellows and alumni of Paideia, now in its 10th year. The institute’s main program is a full academic year of interactive study of Jewish texts and courses in leadership development, with the goal of educating and training “the best and brightest” young people “who can lead a true renaissance of European Jewish culture,” according to its website.

Among this summer’s participants in Project Incubator — which was conducted in English — were two Russian women planning weekend seminars for Jewish learning in various cities; a Belarus activist who hopes to create a combined Jewish study/vocational training program for young men from disadvantaged families; an Italian architect with a vision of turning the famous Venice Jewish Ghetto into a vibrant center for international Jewish life and culture; and a theatrical couple from England whose dream is to see “Soviet Zion,” their musical production depicting life in Birobidzhan, the Stalin-designated Yiddish homeland in Siberia, into a Broadway show.

The sophistication and scope of the projects varied, but the incubator program boasts an impressive track record. About two-thirds of past proposals have come to fruition within a year, aided by help from the program’s alumni, and funding advice and support from Paideia mentors and a network of funders (including the European Jewish Fund, UJA-Federation of New York and the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education in the Diaspora).

The incubator workshop culminates with the “pitch-a-thon,” where five or six of the most promising presenters have five minutes each to describe their project to a panel of seasoned professionals, including foundation representatives, who offer critiques, suggestions and encouragement.

“Paideia and the leaders it is training are the epicenter of a paradigm shift in Europe,” says Joshua Avedon, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based organization, Jumpstart, which describes itself as a “thinkubator for sustainable Jewish innovation.”

Avedon, a facilitator of Project Incubator, notes that “these new projects clearly show that European Jewish life is a growing force in building a global Jewish culture that is dynamic and future-focused, and rivals the creativity happening in the U.S. and Israel.”

In fact, the preliminary analysis of a survey of new Jewish initiatives — a project of Jumpstart, the London-based Pears Foundation and ROI, a global community of Jewish innovators created by philanthropist Lynn Schusterman — suggests that “European Jewry may be producing more creative new initiatives per capita than North American Jewry, and in countries where one might least expect it,” according to Jumpstart co-founder Shawn Landres.

A Story Of ‘Dis-assimilation’

During my five days at Paideia, which included one-on-one meetings with a number of the participants to advise them on their particular projects, I was impressed with their dedication, enthusiasm and confidence in a Jewish future for European Jewry.

Emotions aside, though, the demographics are more than sobering. With the exception, ironically, of Germany, the Jewish population throughout Europe is dwindling, there are few young people and the assimilation rate is skyrocketing — well over 80 percent and approaching 100 percent in some areas.

But while some experts insist the statistics speak for themselves and that European Jewry effectively will be gone in a decade or two, activists suggest that what is needed is a new definition of “Jewish” to meet the reality of life here.

For example, in an overwhelmingly secular society like Sweden, it is common for non-Jewish marriage partners to convert, and they are accepted as members of the Jewish community. (See sidebar on Sweden’s Jewish community.)

“We can’t afford to see intermarriage as the end of the story,” says Barbara Spectre, the dedicated, American-born director of Paideia, who left a faculty post at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to found the Swedish program a decade ago. She notes that a number of Paideia participants are four and even five generations removed from their Jewish roots.

“Paideia is proof of the remarkable story of dis-assimilation,” she says, a story of people between the ages of 20 and 40 exploring their culture and heritage, attracted to the vibrancy of Jewish life and eager to assert their identity. “If we depended on statistics…”

She lets the thought trail off, but it is clear she means that, based on data alone, there would be no Paideia.

“We give them knowledge and power,” Spectre says of the participants, whom she describes as part of “a great transformation taking place.”

No Pollyanna, she is well aware of the challenges facing European Jewry at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise and Israel, she notes, “complicates” life for many. But she calls for “a change in rhetoric and attitude” among Israeli and American Jewish leaders toward the Jewish communities of Europe, noting that some Israeli and diaspora leaders refuse to “hear good news” about Jewish life in countries like Poland or Germany, locked as they are into tragic images of the past.

Spectre’s efforts, and message, are about focusing on the future, and she says she is optimistic, based on the revival of Jewish life Paideia alumni have helped initiate in their native countries over the last few years.

I’d like to believe her. While the political, demographic and cultural forces appear to be aligned against a flowering of Jewish life in Europe in the 21st century, Jewish history is one of survival against all odds. And the inspiration I felt from the dedicated young Paideia participants I met stays with me.

I’m hoping for another miracle.

Gary Rosenblatt’s visit to Stockholm was sponsored by Paideia.

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