European Jewish leaders share their troubles

European Jewish communal leaders attend a forum in Vienna in February 2006. (Dinah A. Spritzer)

European Jewish communal leaders attend a forum in Vienna in February 2006. (Dinah A. Spritzer)

PRAGUE, Feb. 15 (JTA) — Hans Vuijsje, general director of the Jewish Social Work Foundation in the Netherlands, is worried that the nursing home he runs is suffering from schizophrenia. “We don’t have enough Jews so we fill the home with non-Jews,” he says regretfully. “It’s a matter of money. In fairness, we have to have a Christmas tree for the non-Jews, and that means having two recreation rooms, one for those who want the tree and then another without the tree. But sometimes the Jewish elderly, they like the way the tree looks and end up wanting to be in that room. So how do we keep the nursing home Jewish with a declining Jewish population?” Vuijsje was sounding off to a sympathetic audience, 34 other European Jewish leaders of communities and organizations who spent three days last week contemplating their obstacles, which ranged from the high cost of kosher food in Eastern Europe to the record number of French Jews making aliyah. The First Forum of Directors, put on by the European Council of Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was a nuts-and-bolts pan-European workshop held for top Jewish professionals. Intended to improve participants’ fund-raising and management skills, the forum also provided a snapshot of difficulties faced by beleaguered executives who were thrilled to hear they were not alone. “I know this might sound silly, but it was so wonderful to hear that other people struggle with my problems,” said forum attendee Elma Groen, executive director of the Netherlands’ Union of Progressive Jews, who elicited chuckles when describing how her congregation’s rabbi told her she should be sweeter when pushing members for dues. But just how similar are the problems facing Jewish leaders in, say, Stockholm and Warsaw? Daniel Koverman, leader of the 1,000-member Malmo community in Sweden noted a challenge many European Jewish leaders face. “More than 65 percent of our members are over 65 and the younger ones are disappearing to Stockholm, Gotenberg or Israel. For every Jewish birth we have 30 deaths per year,” he said. About 1.6 million Jews live in Europe; 66 percent live in Western Europe and 34 percent in Eastern Europe and the Balkan countries — including the Asian territories of the Russian Republic and Turkey. Koverman’s lament resounded with Petr Papousek, who heads a community of only 150 in Olomouc, Czech Republic. “There are at least 10 young Jews in Olomouc that are not members of the community and nothing I say to them convinces them to join. They tell me they don’t feel any identity at all with Judaism,” he said. Alex Sivan, executive director of Fedrom, the Romanian umbrella organization that includes about 10,000 Jews, offered some inspiration. “We opened computer classes because young people in Romania can’t afford the computers. The average monthly is wage is $95. Let me tell you, we have attracted lots of young people.” The intermarriage rate in Europe is on average 50 percent to 70 percent, and much higher in Eastern Europe. A divisive issue among European Jewry is how to accommodate, or exclude, such mixed families. In the United States, congregations or movements must tackle this thorny issue. But in Europe, it is whole communities that often decide who may take part in official Jewish life. Lina Filiba, executive vice president of the Jewish Community of Istanbul, provoked a stir among forum attendees when she said that her community actively seeks to involve non-Jewish spouses in community life by offering “neutral programs that they can feel comfortable participating in.” Meanwhile, there is no collective European approach to defining who is recognized as a Jew. In Helsinki, couples that include a non-Jewish mother can get their children into a Jewish school and the community as long as they sign a document that promises the children will convert at the same time as having a bar or bat mitzah. But in Italy, such conversions were banned a few years ago, leaving some families with Jewish and non-Jewish siblings. Discussions over how to treat these families in Western Europe amused Andrej Zozula, executive director of the Polish Union of Religious Communities. “We have a problem finding anyone who is not in a mixed marriage in our country,” he said. Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, noted an increasing number of conflicts that were dividing European communities, some having to do with orthodoxy, some with the rise of Chabad. “We as institutions have to take a some kind of stance on this challenge,” he said, referring to Chabad. Kraus outlined challenges that were particularly resonant for Jews in Eastern Europe, such as who would care for all their cemeteries and synagogues. “Do we invest in stones or in people?” he said. Poland’s Zozula spoke of the impossible task of caring for 1,300 Jewish cemeteries. “Rebuilding our cemeteries is part of showing our young people our traditions,” he said. Although communities in the former Eastern Bloc have substantially caught up to their Western counterparts in terms of cultural offerings and education, they still operate in a post-Communist milieu where a Jewish stigma and financial hardship are everyday facts of life. “Each year I get a bunch of people in their 70s walking into the community for the first time, quietly admitting that they are Jewish, so they can be buried in a Jewish cemetery,” said Sivan of Romania.

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