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Ten countries, 10 communities

PRAGUE, April 27 (JTA) — Fewer than 150,000 Jews live in the 10 new member states set to enter the European Union on May 1. The Jewish population in these countries ranges from 100 or less in Cyprus and Malta to as many as 100,000 or more in Hungary. Following are brief profiles of the communities in each country, with comments from local Jewish personalities on E.U. enlargement. • HUNGARY: Estimates of Hungary’s Jewish population range from 54,000 to more than 130,000. About 90 percent live in Budapest, where there is a full range of Jewish cultural, religious, educational and social welfare services. The vast majority of Hungarian Jews are nonobservant, secular or totally unaffiliated. Only 6,000 or so are formally registered with the Jewish community and about 20,000 have some sort of affiliation with Jewish organizations or institutions. The dominant religious affiliation is Neolog — similar to America’s Conservative movement. There is a very small Orthodox community made up of both modern-Orthodox and fervently Orthodox Jews. Chabad maintains a synagogue and yeshiva. A small Reform congregation established in 1992 functions outside official Jewish umbrella structures. “Federation-style organized Jewish life is dying around the world,” said Agnes Peresztegi, who helped found a grass-roots, modern-Orthodox congregation in Budapest several years ago. “People give their support in a very different and much more personalized way then was the norm even 15 years ago.” However, she said, “there’s a need, of course, for federation-style organizations; certain community functions may not be run by a small organization. But the federations need to change, and I’m sure that they will learn to work with grass-roots Jewish organizations in the long run.” A lawyer who has worked on issues of Jewish property restitution, Peresztegi said she expects E.U. enlargement to impact issues related to art looted in the Holocaust. The European Parliament passed a resolution last year calling for the creation of Europe-wide restitution rules and the creation of a single European agency to arbitrate art ownership disputes, she said. The European Commission will draw up a report by the end of 2004 detailing how to put the resolution into practice, Peresztegi said. It will come up with specific proposals on a common European cataloging system on looted cultural goods and common principles on ownership or title, and will define the potential powers of a cross-border arbitration body. • CZECH REPUBLIC: Some 3,000-4,000 Jews are known to live in the Czech Republic, but estimates of unaffiliated Jews run much higher. Hundreds of foreign Jews, including Israelis, also live in the country. Ten officially mandated Jewish communities and a number of secular Jewish institutions come under the aegis of the country’s Federation of Jewish Communities. About half of Czech Jewry lives in Prague, which boasts a full and lively range of Jewish religious, social, cultural and educational options. Though Orthodox Judaism is the main religious orientation, Conservative Jewry also is officially recognized and Reform services are present, too. Most Czech Jews are non-Orthodox or secular. Tomas Kraus, the federation’s executive secretary, says joining the European Union could have both positive and negative effects on the community. “The free movement of people could mean enlargement of Jewish communities, not only from the East” — with new immigrants looking for better economic and political conditions — “but also from the West, as it is now in many cases of American ex-pats who have found new jobs and positions in Prague and other Czech cities,” he said. But anti-Semitism also could rise in the new countries, Kraus said. “Western European moods can influence the moods in Eastern and Central Europe,” he said. “With the Czech Republic being maybe exceptionally pro-Jewish and pro-Israel” — though not without anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment — “this could be a new phenomenon.” • SLOVAKIA: Fewer than 4,000 Jews are believed to live in Slovakia. The main communities — each with about 500 Jews — are in the capital of Bratislava and in Kosice, in the eastern part of the country. Most Slovak Jews are non-observant or secular, but there is a range of cultural, religious and educational activity. Maros Borsky, a curator at the Jewish museum in Bratislava, also runs a general-service travel agency. He says E.U. enlargement could have a range of effects on Jewish communal life — including the potential for an exodus of young urban professionals. “If so, it means the Slovak Jewish community would be demographically decimated,” said Borsky, who is in his early 30s. “Some young people will stay, however, because new investment will generate an economic boom in the Bratislava region in some professional sectors.” In the long term, Borsky predicted a merging of Bratislava and Vienna into one urban zone, with the development of high-speed transportation that might aid cooperation between the two cities’ Jewish communities. “However this would only be possible once the Viennese stop seeing Bratislavans as poor relatives, but rather as a community with similar demographic problems,” Borsky said. In general, he said, “I would imagine a depopulation of some smaller Jewish communities and a growing trend to large urban Jewish centers — Berlin, Budapest, perhaps Vienna-Bratislava, etc.” • POLAND: Poland had Europe’s largest Jewish population before World War II, at some 3.5 million Jews. Estimates of the number of Jews in Poland today range from the 7,000-8,000 who are officially registered with the community, belong to Jewish organizations or receive aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, to the 10,000-15,000 people of Jewish ancestry who have shown interest in rediscovering their heritage, to as many as 30,000-40,000 people with some Jewish ancestry. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a prime mover in fostering post-Communist Jewish revival in Poland, runs the country’s most extensive Jewish educational programs, including a day school in Warsaw with more than 160 pupils. Writer Konstanty Gebert, founding editor of the Jewish monthly Midrasz, says E.U. enlargement won’t directly affect Jews in the new member states, aside from the mainly positive way it will change the lives of the general population. “In the long run, however, it will be instrumental in bringing all the continent’s Jews together and helping them avail themselves of new opportunities, both through E.U. sponsorship of some community programs and through the implementation of E.U. laws,” he said. “The main issue, however, is whether there exists a ‘European Jewry’ able to profit from the opportunity.” Gebert warned that “what might change is the relatively more balanced approach some new members, especially Poland, have taken on the Middle East conflict. As the E.U. attempts to integrate the foreign policies of its members, it can be expected the newcomers will more closely toe Brussels’ line, markedly critical of Israel.” • LITHUANIA: About 4,000 Jews live in Lithuania, most of them in the capital, Vilnius, where there is a Jewish school, a Jewish museum and a range of Jewish cultural activity. Synagogues operate in Vilnius and Kaunas, but attendance is low. Chabad is active. Historian Ilya Lempertas told JTA he expects some positive changes from Lithuania’s E.U. entry, but not in the short term. “It’s the implementation of new laws and regulations that counts,” he said. “I don’t see any immediate change, but maybe we’ll see something in three to five years.” The most positive effect, he said, would be that of bringing Lithuania out of what he called its “corner” into the European mainstream. “To me, the one thing that the E.U. can give us is broader horizons,” he said. • LATVIA: About 10,000 Jews live in Latvia, most of them in the capital, Riga, where there is a synagogue, an active Jewish community center and other infrastructure for Jewish life. Latvia is believed to have had the highest rate of Nazi collaboration in Europe and has struggled to confront its Holocaust history since gaining independence from Soviet rule in 1991. “On the one hand, E.U. enlargement will be good for us Jews here, as it means we won’t be alone in Europe,” said Meijer Melers, of Riga’s Jewish museum. On the other hand, he feared the economic consequences, at least in the short run. “We think entry into the E.U. is positive, but we worry a lot, too, that prices will shoot up and approach European levels,” he said. • ESTONIA: About 3,500 Jews live in Estonia, the majority of them in Tallinn, the capital. There are three small communities in other regions of Estonia. About 60 percent of the community arrived in Estonia after World War II and are not considered Estonian citizens. The majority of them today are elderly and many need social assistance. Under communism, most of Estonia’s Jews became highly assimilated and often estranged from Jewish religious and cultural traditions. Community leaders regard their main goal as fostering a restoration of Jewish identity through cultural, educational, religious and social programs. “A positive effect of E.U. entry can be greater communication,” said Aleksander Dusman, chairman of the 150-member Jewish community in Ida Virumaa county. “We already had good cooperation with the Nordic countries. I hope after E.U. entry we have a greater possibility for free travel, jobs abroad, communication.” On the other hand, he said, he fears his community might receive less aid from international Jewish organizations. “And we still don’t know how to apply for E.U. funds,” he said. • SLOVENIA: About 200 Jews live in Slovenia. In early 2003, the community opened a synagogue in a converted suite of office rooms, received a Torah as a gift and officially installed a rabbi, who divides his time between the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, and the nearby Italian city of Trieste. The synagogue is the first to function in Ljubljana since Jews were expelled from the city in 1515. In a statement issued by the European Council of Jewish Communities, Slovene Jewish community president Andrei Kozar Beck complained that Slovene Jews were “treated as a small irrelevant community. We practically have no contact with the state departments and they rarely even answer our mail.” There is no “serious” anti-Semitism in Slovenia, he said, but warned that “tolerance toward Jews and other non-Slovenians has been recently decreasing. That is a consequence of a nationalistic crisis in Slovenia and the adjustment of the upcoming entry into the E.U., which does not seem to be very pro-Israel.” “Our government and press associate Israeli politics with Jews all around the world,” he said. “The general political atmosphere is pro-Arab and not very fond of us.” • CYPRUS: Only two or three dozen Jewish families live in Cyprus, all of them in the Greek sector. Community officials say Cypriot Jews, like their non-Jewish compatriots, generally are happy about E.U. accession. One officials said, “it is always positive to be a member of a bigger, more organized group like the E.U.” • MALTA: About 100 Jews of all denominations live on Malta. Ashknenazi and Sephardi Jews pray together in an apartment owned by the community. About half of Malta’s Jews are Orthodox. Community president Shelley Deutch Tayar told the European Council of Jewish Communities that Maltese Jews generally are well integrated into mainstream society. “The Jews on the island are very respected and very accepted by the many interest circles. Nobody cares what religion one is, just what one does,” Tayar said. “When Malta joins the European Union, it will be a lot easier for Jewish retirees to come to the island.”