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Ten Years After the Wall: Whether Remnant or Renaissance, European Jewry is Redefining Itself

A decade ago, the Jewish communities in Communist- dominated Eastern and Central Europe were generally written off as dying remnants of the pre-Holocaust past.

Forty years of communist restrictions — and decades more than that in what was then the Soviet Union — had compounded the devastation of the Shoah.

Most who openly identified themselves as Jews were elderly. Many, if not most, other Jews chose to conceal or deny their Jewish identity. Many others, particularly in the former Soviet Union, faced active persecution. To many observers, the Jewish chapter in this part of Europe was virtually closed.

The collapse of communism 10 years ago changed everything. The institution of religious freedom and the disintegration of communist-era taboos triggered social, cultural and religious Jewish revival.

Exact figures have not been compiled, but throughout Eastern and Central Europe, thousands of Jews, particularly younger people, have discovered, recovered or reclaimed long-buried Jewish roots and openly declared a Jewish identity.

This may be via a superficial public self-identification as a Jew, participation in study groups and secular Jewish activities, or immersion in traditional, religious Jewish life.

this has happened in Poland, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in Hungary, in Bulgaria — even in the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

Hundreds of thousands, meanwhile, have immigrated to Israel and elsewhere from the former Soviet Union. This includes at least 70,000 Jews who have immigrated to Germany, radically changing the face of the Jewish community there.

Hundreds of thousands have also stayed in Russia, Ukraine and other countries, and have reopened synagogues and schools and rebuilt communal structures.

“Jewish communities in the region are throwing off the mantle of `remnant’ like a garment that no longer fits,” says Edward Serotta, an American photographer and writer who has documented Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe since the mid-1980s.

“We’ve been calling them last Jews, but they’re not acting like last Jews – – with kindergartens, summer camps, schools, youth programs and even Web sites on the Internet.”

The impact of these changes has extended beyond the former communist states.

The emergence of newly active Jewish communities in the East, combined with the development of a new vision of a pluralistic Europe freed of artificial East- West frontiers, has created new opportunities, conditions and challenges for European Jewry in general.

The new freedoms have opened up a world of choices. And the outcome of these choices is still far from clear.

Jews in former communist states may be throwing off the mantle of remnant, but it is still too early to predict whether the momentum of what many call a Jewish renaissance will carry through into the 21st century.

Indeed, much of the support and infrastructure for Jewish revival in former communist states has been, and still is, funded by foreign institutions such as the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad Lubavitch.

Not only that.

“Jews in Europe today are, first and foremost, voluntary Jews, their continued presence in European societies demonstrates a conscious personal commitment,” says Paris-based historian Diana Pinto.

“They could just as easily disappear into anonymity, stop being Jews. And they are of course free to do so; it is one of their rights in a pluralistic democracy.”

Pinto, in fact, espouses an optimistic vision of a Jewish future in Europe, one that links Jewish development with the development of post-Cold War civil society across the continent.

In this construct, the new European framework is seen as the basis for the potential emergence of a strengthened and self-confident European Jewry that can take its place both as a positive, creative force in Europe and as a “third pillar” alongside the Jews of America and Israel in global Jewish affairs.

This vision was celebrated at the end of May, when nearly 600 Jews from 39 countries converged on Nice, France, for the first General Assembly of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

“We are here to celebrate the pride and optimism of being Jews in Europe and being European Jews,” Council Chairwoman Ruth Zilkha told the meeting.

“We are committed to building an exciting Jewish life as part of a new democratic and pluralistic Europe,” she said. “We are at a very special moment of creation and vision.”

Looming in the background, however, were dire predictions from pessimists like British Jewish scholar Bernard Wasserstein, who articulated his negative vision of the European Jewish future in a controversial book, “Vanishing Diaspora,” published three years ago.

Citing drastically negative demographic statistics, thanks to a combination of assimilation, falling birth rates and mass emigration from the former Soviet Union, Wasserstein pooh-poohs the idea of a European Jewish renaissance.

He disputes the European Council’s claim that 3 million Jews live in Europe. He puts the total at 2 million — and falling.

Within a generation or two, Wasserstein glumly predicts, “here and there pockets of ultra-Orthodox Jews, clinging to the tenets of the faith, will no doubt survive — a picturesque remnant like the Amish in the United States.”

Jews in Europe, both East and West, have a bitter and frustrated awareness of the looming, unresolved challenges that may hamper Jewish development both within individual communities and in the world at large.

How to deal with the divisions among Orthodox, non-Orthodox and secular Jews? How to make Judaism a relevant choice in today’s ideological marketplace? How to approach the high intermarriage rate and the resulting question of who is or can be considered a Jew? Is it possible to adopt a Jewish identity in mid-life? Should intermarriage be seen as a bridge or a barrier? How to confront the crisis in Jewish leadership, on local, national and Europe-wide levels?

How, too, to deal with the changing relationship between Israel and the Diaspora? And how to address the mounting claims by emerging Jewish communities in Eastern Europe to play a full role on the Jewish world stage?

These are, in fact, many of the same questions that face Jews in already democratic, pluralistic, borderless America. But European Jews face them against a different historical and physical backdrop.

Two-thirds of Europe’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, destroying centuries- old communities and traumatizing those Jews who chose to remain — and their children.

The East-West postwar divide effectively and artificially cut off Eastern European Jews from the rest of the Jewish world. Indeed, Jews from these countries–including those who have immigrated to Germany and Israel — often have had to learn more than prayers, holidays, customs and Hebrew. They must also frequently learn even the sense of collective memory and connection that even secular Jews in the West tend to grow up with.

Many Jews in former communist Europe still maintain what Polish sociologist Pawel Spiewak describes as an “idle” Jewish identity: they are aware of their Jewish identity but, for whatever reason, are not interested in deepening or admitting it.

This is strikingly evident in Hungary, whose Jewish population is estimated at anywhere between 54,000 and 130,000.

Like other countries in the region, Hungary has experienced a visible Jewish revival. Still, only about 6,000 Jews, most of them elderly, formally belong to the Jewish religious community. And only about 20,000 Jews are estimated to have even a tenuous contact with any sort of Jewish activity or institution.

Jews active in community work warn that the momentum of the current Jewish revival may be endangered unless new, younger leaders are prepared to take up the reins and efforts are made to encourage continuing Jewish involvement.

Increasingly, international Jewish organizations are establishing training programs for teachers, lay leaders and fund raisers.

The European Council of Jewish Communities promotes cross-border contacts, keeps track of new e-mail links and Jewish community Web sites, and helps arrange seminars and other activities — including international singles weekends.

But will this be enough?

Experts say critical mass for Jewish continuity in former communist Europe may not be achieved until the children of today’s emerging Jewish generations come of age.

“It is the young who will decide on the character of the Jewish community,” says sociologist Spiewak. “The third generation, the children of those who chose to be Jewish” as adults “are the ones who will determine the picture.”

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