Charting the future of European Jewry. It is a monumental task, as evidenced by a recent landmark conference here, during which participants debated strategies for allowing European Jews to take their place as a “third pillar” in the Jewish world — alongside Israel and the American Jewish community.
“The challenges are dramatic,” David Lewis, president of the London-based European Council of Jewish Communities, said at the July 2 opening of the conference.
“We have to task stock, to make plans,” he said.
The three-day conference was held 50 years after the Holocaust decimated the Jewish population of Europe, and just more than five years after the fall of communism redrew the map of the continent and freed Eastern European Jews from oppression.
The conference, sponsored by the European Council, the London-based Institute of Jewish Affairs, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, drew 200 Jewish community leaders, policy-makers and scholars from 25 countries across Europe, the United States and Israel.
Participants included Orthodox and secular Jews, rabbis and lay people. They represented Jewish organizations as well as individual Jewish communities, ranging from the large, well-organized communities in the United Kingdom and France, to the newly emerging Jewish communities that have resurrected themselves in former Communist countries during the past five years.
The organizers stressed that the conference title, “Planning for the Future of European Jewry,” reflected “an assertion that Jews in Europe can take the future into their own hands, an attitude inconceivable before 1989.”
Indeed, the conference was held in a city whose post-Communist transformation symbolizes the dramatic transformations that have taken place with the end of the Cold War.
Czech Republican President Vaclav Havel, who met with participants, emphasized the importance of Jewish input for Europe and expressed optimism about the future.
“The Jewish Diaspora survived everything it met within its history, and it met many bad things,” he said.
“So I believe that Jews will continue to live a life of their own and that new generations will emerge,” Havel said.
Jews, he noted, have been an inseparable part of Europe for centuries. They were an “internationalizing influence” — living in many states, but at the same time preserving their own identity.
This example provided by European Jewry, he added, can help in the overall process of unifying Europe.
Debate during the conference focused on both the definition and identification of problems and challenges as well as on suggestions for taking practical action.
“The new situation in Europe presents both great opportunities and dangers for Jewish communities,” Peter Levy, chairman of the Institute Of Jewish Affairs, told the conference.
“There is an urgent need for more coordinated response, to seek common solutions to common problems,” he said.
Michael Friedman, a member of the presidium of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said, “We have to be aware that the next years will be more difficult than the last ones.”
“We have to define our goals. The problems around us present a danger but also a chance for Jewish life,” he said.
Key topics of discussion at the conference included: * How to define Jewish – - and even European — identity, and how to define just what constitutes a Jewish community; * Relations between Diaspora communities and Israel, between various communities within the worldwide Diaspora and between established Western European communities and the newly emerging or reconstituted communities in Eastern Europe; * The issue of intermarriage — running at a rate of about 50 percent in Europe — and how to deal with non-Jewish partners and the children of mixed marriages; * How to attract Jews to the Jewish community and Jewish organizations; * Anti-Semitism and interfaith activities.
Not unlike an issue engaging American Jewry was the question of Jewish identity in an increasingly secularized world.
Indeed, at the conference here, this issue underlay debate on pragmatic policy issues.
“The problem, we are facing at this conference is how to transform Jews in Europe into European Jews,” said Dominique Moisi, head of the Paris-based French Institute of Foreign Relations. Moisi was the keynote speaker.
“For the first time in Jewish history, we are Jews because we have so chosen; Jewish identity is purely voluntary,” said Jean-Jacques Wahl of the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle.
Speakers repeatedly stressed that with Jewish identity now a voluntary act, Jewish communities must use what speakers defined as a “market approach” in “selling” the attractions of affiliation.
“Everyone now in the voluntary Jewish community joins for different reasons,” said Yechiel Bar Chaim of the Joint.
“We’ve lost the idea of a homogenous Jewish community. People come in and out,” he said.
“But the portrait of the flexible, open Jewish community has its problems,” he added, questioning whether an approach based on the voluntary participation of members of the community would prove sufficient.