BRUSSELS (Sep. 29)
Bring 420 young Jews from 32 countries to a beach in Greece, and you’ll get a mix of two things: partying and arguing.
At an event unlike any other in Europe, hundreds of young European Jewish students, aged 18 to 30, gathered recently for the celebratory European Jewish “Summer University” — an annual week of noisy debates, workshops and partying until the wee morning hours.
Now in its 25th year, the gathering is organized by the European Union of Jewish Students and aims to be a week of Jewish culture, reflection and social happenings.
Organized by students, Summer U. is held in a different European city each year. Participants come from large cities and small Jewish communities and include religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
There was so much demand for this year’s gathering in Salonika, Greece, that some last-minute registrants could not come due to lack of space.
The event’s chief organizer, Marta Muscnik, EUJS’ executive director, says young Jews in Europe increasingly feel the need to connect to other Jews since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada three years ago and the rise of anti- Semitism across Europe.
“Students feel that they are in comfortable surroundings. They need to freely exchange their views and ideas about what’s going on in the world,” Muscnik says. “There is certainly an increase of interest in workshops relating to terrorism, the challenges that Israel faces and growing anti-Semitism.”
Not unlike the annual end-of-summer gathering in the United States organized by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the idea at Summer U. is to combine an educational program that enables young Jews to learn and discuss topics that are relevant to their daily life — while participants socialize and make Jewish friends across the Continent.
For some Summer U. participants, the weeklong experience can be transformative.
“Today’s global village provides us with increasing mobility, and as a result we might feel less connected to our roots,” says Gabor Fleischer of Hungary, a computer science student. “But here I make new friends across the Continent. When I travel in Europe, I know that I will always be able to crash at a friend’s house for Shabbat.”
Adam Mouchtar, who is studying political science in Germany, says, “The workshops are intensive and of high quality. I’ve learned a lot about the situation in the Middle East, which makes me more prepared for debates when I return home.”
“And,” he adds with a smile, “I had a long discussion with a rabbi on dating Jewish girls!”
Students from small Jewish communities say they find the gathering particularly helpful. This year, a dozen participants came from Portugal, representing close to four-fifths of the country’s young Jews.
“Summer University gives me something that I cannot find in Lisbon,” says David Ruah, a 26-year-old consultant. “When hundreds of people are dancing a hora together, it’s the same atmosphere as a Jewish wedding — which takes place every five years in my country, if we’re lucky.”
“I’ve never been around as many Jews in my entire life,” says Lisbon native Daniela Ruah, 19, an arts student.
“Here, you don’t feel the need to explain to people who you are,” she says. “I am meeting people who eat kosher for the first time ever.”
Lela Sadikario, 22, is from Macedonia, where there are about 250 Jews.
“I can make loads of new friends from different communities and I feel like I’m in a small Israel,” she says. “As a student activist, this is also the best place to get fresh ideas and share experiences with other leaders of student unions.”
Karel Serfaty, of Spain, says, “You go back to your country and feel empowered to help Israel. There is a lot of positive energy, hope and encouragement.”
For the few North Americans who came to the program in Greece, Summer U. provided a contrast to Jewish life in America.
“Coming from New York, this experience redefines for me what it means to be Jewish,” says Phil Mayer, a financial consultant. “I’m learning new ideas, practices and traditions.”
Michael Harris, a New Yorker studying psychology, says Summer U. helped him realize that America should do more to help European Jewish communities.
“There is so much that we take for granted back in the U.S. I’ve just met a Dutch guy who told me he was beat up in Amsterdam because he wore a Maccabi T-shirt,” he said, referring to an Israeli logo.
This year’s theme at Summer U. in Salonika was “Sharing A Vision,” and the program included lectures on such topics as the history of Greek Jews, the “road map” peace plan, religious tradition and student activism.
Sandwiched between workshops were Israeli dance lessons, athletic contests and theatrical performances.
Mili Saltiel was one of the local Jews who helped organize the event.
“It feels good to be active and have responsibilities for something that is meaningful,” Saltiel says.
The week included tours of Salonika’s Jewish community, which was one of the world’s largest and most vibrant until its devastation in World War II.