Behind the Headlines the Jews of Vienna
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Vienna

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In the early morning rush hour in Vienna, thousands of people travel by subway to their places of work. One of the most famous stations is at Stephansplatz, at St. Stephans Cathedral. When he has the time, Dr. Leon Zelman stands in front of his office in the square where the station is located and watches the hundreds of subway passengers emerge from the underground on an escalator and out into the square where they cannot but help to see the sign that says: “Jewish Welcome Service — Israel Tourist Information.”

Zelman, a leader of the Vienna Jewish community and manager of the Jewish Welcome Service Travel Bureau, is proud of that sign. It is almost as if it is a reminder to the world, to Europe, to Vienna, that there is still a Jewish community very much alive in the capital of Austria.

After all, a community which has five Jewish newspapers, a half dozen synagogues, a community center, a day school, Talmud Torahs, kosher restaurants, bakeries and butcher shops, a new senior citizens home with geriatric facilities, and 8,000 to 10,000 Jews, is not exactly dormant.


And yet, ironically, the big debate in Vienna is whether the Jewish community is viable or not. Despite disclosure by some that the community is not one of the world’s most Jewishly involved, hope is expressed by many that with encouragement, Jewish life will continue to thrive. What is encouraging to a visitor is that a few of the present Jewish community leaders want to keep things humming.

For example, during an interview this reporter had while visiting Vienna recently with Michal Katz, president of the Jewish Student Union, and Ben Segenrich, a student leader, they said that there are 800 members in the Union between the ages of 18 and 35.

The popular activity is the weekly get together for Israeli folk dancing. The students also often gather together for parties. While fewer attend lectures on Jewish and Israeli-related topics, there are some educational programs which do draw a great many students. And when there is a crisis in Jewish life in Austria or elsewhere, students do respond and demonstrate support for Israel, Soviet Jews and Syrian Jews.

The two student leaders agreed with Zelman that there is very little intermarriage. Zelman said that often many families send their daughters and sons to Israel to find a spouse.

Many of the Austrian Jewish youth are medical students. Katz and Segenrich told me that in 1890, 42 percent of all medical students in Vienna were Jewish; and even today, more than 50 percent of the young Jewish men and women study medicine. Katz herself, who came here from Israel where she lived with her family, is also a medical student.

Among the Jewish student groups are Hashomer Hatzair and B’nai Akiva. There is some aliya to Israel. During the past summer there was a contingent from Austria to the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Most of the Jews in Austria have visited Israel. It’s only a three-hour flight to Ben Gurion Airport.

There is some interchange of ideas with Jews from America, but not much. Zelman often hosts Jewish leaders from the U.S. as well as teachers groups. Recently there was a B’nai B’rith Hillel group which visited the community.

If the Austrian Jewish community is to go on, though, exchange of visitors is crucial. Ties with the Jewish community in Israel are strong; the Holocaust is not forgotten. Zelman is part of a commission which visits schools and takes up that dark, tragic period in human civilization. He also organizes visits of Austrian teachers to visit Israel.

This is a close-knit community; everyone knows everyone else and the very small nucleus keep it alive. There is no doubt that the Jewish community is involved in the cultural and economic life of the country. They live a “nice life,” is the best description of Jews in Austria.

And why not? Whether it is the result of the relaxed nature of the Viennese, political direction, the fortunes of history or a combination of all three, Vienna emerges as a truly livable, urban cosmopolitan place.

The best way to begin a visit to Vienna is to stop at the Jewish Welcome Service; it will begin an experience with the past, present and future in a country still deeply involved with the world and a Jewish Community which intends to stay alive.

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