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Around the Jewish World Women Say Jewish Family Life is Key to Rebuilding European Communities

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European Jews made a statement this weekend to the rest of the Jewish world: They are alive, gaining confidence and have just as many opinions as do their counterparts elsewhere.

While the European Council of Jewish Communities met in Madrid, issuing statements on the Mideast and other political issues, the liveliness of European Jewry was very much in evidence on a smaller scale here, at the second Bet Debora conference of European female rabbis, cantors, Jewish activists and scholars.

Dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Family — Myth and Reality,” the conference, which ended Monday, attracted to Berlin some 200 participants, mostly women, from across Europe, Israel and the United States.

The conference provided an opportunity to discuss both traditional and alternative definitions of family, a topic that challenges Jewish communities worldwide.

The overriding consensus was that European Jewish communities should try to bend — in order not to break — under the pressure of a changing society.

As British Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah put it, the Jewish family can no longer be defined solely as “a father, a mother and 2.4 children.”

Instead, it can be a childless family, a single-parent family, or a family with parents of the same sex.

“The Jewish family is dead,” she said, then added, playing on a Britishism, “long live the Jewish family.”

Most conference participants were Reform Jews, though there were also many Conservative Jews and some from an Orthodox background.

As with a conference held two years ago, Bet Debora is sponsored in part by the Jewish Community of Berlin — a fact that organizers say demonstrates the readiness of the community to attend to the concerns of its non-Orthodox members.

One participant noted that, as a grandmother, she is the most stable figure for her grandchildren as their parents undergo divorces and remarriages.

Another asked how she could create a nurturing role for herself as a woman with no children.

When one young woman said she did not want to have children until she was sure of a supportive Jewish community, Israeli feminist and peace activist Alice Shalvi told her not to wait.

“You and the child will create the community,” Shalvi said.

The Madrid conference involved the leadership of European Jewry, while Berlin had a more grass-roots feel. Yet both conferences “express the degree of variety there now is in Europe,” said Antony Lerman, who managed to attend both events.

“There is a strong degree of self-confidence,” said Lerman, director of the Britain-based Hanadiv Charitable Foundation, which supports Jewish cultural projects in Europe, including Bet Debora. “It’s an expression of pluralism.”

The conference included discussions about rebuilding Jewish life in post-Holocaust Europe and the image of Jewish motherhood.

It also included workshops on traditional and alternative Jewish families; the use of oral history in connecting generations; Jewish identity and conversion; and single parenthood.

Religious services were held daily.

Rabbi Eveline Goodman-Thau of Vienna, who received Orthodox ordination and became the first female rabbi to serve in Austria, led a traditional Sabbath service on Saturday, while in a neighboring room a Reform service was held. In both services, many women wore tallitot and yarmulkes. Torah and Haftorah readings were conducted by women.

Conference organizers Lara Daemmig and Elisa Klapheck said they hoped Bet Debora would enable participants to network and strengthen their communities at home.

The first conference, held in 1999, was “a breakthrough,” Klapheck said. “This time, we would like to go a step further and solidify” those contacts made two years ago.

Such was the case for Sylvia Landauer of Innsbruck, Austria, where she is one of 35 Jews. She learned about the first Bet Deborah conference on the Internet.

In 1999, “for the first time, I was able to exchange ideas that had never found fertile ground before,” said Landauer, 42, a single mother. “I got a feeling for what others were doing in their communities. And now I see that they are all more established than two years ago.”

Though the number of Jews in Eastern and Western Europe has remained static at about 1.6 million in recent years, attendees at the Bet Debora conference were more concerned with quality than with quantity.

“We are from the second generation” after the Holocaust, Klapheck said. “My grandfather was murdered in Auschwitz. But we are trying to become the first generation now, in doing something positive for the Jewish community.”

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