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Coordination of European Jewry Guided from a London Basement

From the Ural Mountains to the Atlantic and from Finland to Crete, a network is increasingly bringing together the Jewish communal service institutions of the Old World.

The network’s coordinator is the European Council of Jewish Communities, also known as the ECJC.

The headquarters for the ECJC is housed in an unassuming basement office on London’s Gloucester Place, where Executive Director Michael May heads a two- person staff and oversees four regional branches.

He surveyed his far-flung constituency of some 3 million Jews for a visitor. Within the 15 countries of the European Union, May estimates, there are slightly more than 1 million Jews, with France (some 500,000 to 700,000) and Britain (some 350,000) far in the lead.

The collapse of the Communist empire brought the ECJC a mass of new clients and challenges. May said about 700,000 to 800,000 Jews are in the Ukraine and almost I million are in Russia. These figures are higher than those reported by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“There are no really accurate figures and much depends on the definition of who is a Jews,” says May, who acknowledges the difficulty of counting Jews in his jurisdiction.

“We hope for a more precise count in the future by emulating the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey in the United States.”

Aside from Russia, Ukraine, France, Britain, and Hungary, which has more than 100,000 Jews, the norm for most ECJC-affiliated countries, such as Greece, Slovakia, Lithuania and Poland, is for Jewish communities to number no more than several thousand.

With but two exceptions – France and Germany – the Jewish presence in Europe is shrinking in the face of low birth rates, assimilation and emigration.

In addition, “European Jewry is strongly divided by language and culture,” May said. “British, French, Italian and Scandinavian Jews all have different mentalities. They don’t have much in common, except when they meet in a synagogue.”

The gulf is even wider in relation to East European Jews.

The ECJC approach is to bridge the differences by organizing frequent meetings among multinational Jewish professionals and lay leaders sharing common interests, such as heads of youth groups, directors of old-age homes, administrators, librarians or principals of day schools. Between meetings there is a constant flow of information, via phone, fax, electronic mail and the Internet.

The council took stock of its strengths and weaknesses at a three-day general assembly in mid-November in Antwerp, Belgium. At the assembly, 100 representatives of 50 Jewish organizations from 32 countries welcomed the newest member – Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and Romania – and a first-time delegation from the hitherto self-isolated Jewish community of Turkey. Only Albania was unrepresented.

Organized European Jewry faces some of the problems as American Jewry. “There are many education and cultural opportunities for Jews in the main cities, but only a core group of the same Jews take part,” May said. “We keep trying to reach the uninvolved.”

As it stands, major Jewish cultural festivals in Paris and Vienna may attract more gentiles than Jews.

Although pleased with their own communal network, Europeans are at times in awe of the sheer massiveness of American Jewish life and activities.

Reporting on a meeting of the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education at the University of Massachusetts, a writer in the ECJC newsletter asks readers to imagine “a gathering of more Jewish educators than the populations of most small Jewish communities in Europe.”

The same newsletter, however, marks small triumphs in the revival of Jewish life in Europe: A Shabbat service was celebrated on the Greek island of Crete for the first time in 50 years. An active Jewish student organization has been re-established in Oslo. And the Croatian Jewish Summer Camp on the Adriatic coast is back in business after serving for four years as a housing site for Bosnian war refugees.

The ECJC is not a membership or grass-roots organization. Its emphasis on networking among communal professionals and on leadership training is rarely reported, even in the Jewish press. “We are a practice-oriented, not a headline-producing, organization,” May said. “We don’t get involved in protests against anti-Semitism, or in interfaith relations, or lobbying for Israel. We focus on community development, education and youth work. The media doesn’t find much controversy in that.”

Although he accepts the low public profile of the ECJC, May said he would appreciate more recognition in America and Israel that “European Jewry counts and that we have an important role to play.”

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