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Vienna’s Jews look to immigration to boost declining numbers

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Ariel Muzicant, president of the Vienna Jewish community, in his office in the Austrian capital. (Ben Harris)

Ariel Muzicant, president of the Vienna Jewish community, in his office in the Austrian capital. (Ben Harris)

The Jewish old-age home being built will be part of a community campus that when finished is expected to be the largest of its kind in Europe. (Ben Harris)

The Jewish old-age home being built will be part of a community campus that when finished is expected to be the largest of its kind in Europe. (Ben Harris)

Ilan Knapp, head of the JBBZ vocational school, leads a commission that will address the Vienna Jewish community's demographic problem. (Ben Harris)

Ilan Knapp, head of the JBBZ vocational school, leads a commission that will address the Vienna Jewish community’s demographic problem. (Ben Harris)

VIENNA (JTA) — From a shelf in his office, Ariel Muzicant extracts a weathered copy of a May 1985 community newsletter whose cover sports a graph depicting the Jewish population of Vienna nosediving.

From its postwar peak of about 9,000 in the early 1960s, the graph projected the Jewish population dipping below 5,000 by the turn of the millennium.

Nearly a quarter-century after that dire prediction, the worst has been avoided: The number of registered community members in Vienna stands at about 7,500 and, according to Muzicant, the community president, it is "technically growing."

But leaders of the Viennese Jewish community, Muzicant among them, again are warning of disaster unless the community increases its ranks. And the consensus on how to do it can be summed up in a single word: immigration.

“We need people," said Ilan Knapp, principal of a Jewish vocational high school in Vienna and the head of a communal commission working to bring Jewish immigrants to Vienna from the former Soviet Union. "The only possibility is to bring Jews from this area."

Over the past two decades, Jewish communities in Western Europe whittled down by intermarriage and assimilation have sustained themselves with immigration by Jews from the East, where communism had left Jews trapped until the fall of the Iron Curtain. The largest pool of potential immigrants, from the former Soviet Union, have been migrating West in significant numbers since the fall of communism.

Skeptics in Vienna say it’s a mistake to pin the community’s future on the hope that more Russian-speaking immigrants will arrive here.

"Those who wanted to come, came," said Rabbi Nechemia Rotenberg, the religious principal of a Jewish high school in Vienna who also works on continuity issues as the director of Zehut ("Identity").

Current projections show the total population of Austrian Jews declining by half in the next 10 to 30 years — a prediction that appears to vary largely on the degree of pessimism of those making it. Vienna’s substantial Jewish infrastructure — four schools, more than a dozen synagogues and an array of Jewish welfare agencies — are in danger if the community cannot amass a larger pool of members to support it. Knapp pegs the target at about 25,000. 

"Communities which today are below 10,000 don’t have the critical mass to survive," Muzicant said, noting that perhaps a third of European Jewish communities are in a situation similar to Vienna’s and are in danger of disappearing.

In trying to draw more Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Austria’s Jews are looking with both envy and trepidation at Germany, their neighbor to the north. Some 120,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have transformed German Jewry and, by some accounts, saved it from oblivion.

Knapp, whose school, Jüdisches Berufliches Bildungszentrum, helps train and assimilate Viennese Jews into the Austrian job market, is confident the community can absorb a large influx more successfully than Germany did.

"They have the people but not the institutions," Knapp said. "We have the institutions but not the people."

Neither Muzicant’s diagnosis nor his solution are universally accepted in Vienna.

Rotenberg says the community is mistaken to pin its hopes on a significant Russian-speaking immigration. The few Jews that are coming to Vienna, he says, are from smaller communities with fewer religious options, such as Germany. He concedes the number is quite modest but says it could be increased.

Yvonne Feiger, 28, the director of the Jewish Salons chapter in Vienna and a member of the community board, said the idea of immigration to save Austrian Jewry is absurd. Instead, the community should focus its resources on the Jews who already live here and, she believes, are not well served by existing community institutions.

"They’re not very good at finding creative answers instead of just saying what is bad," Feiger said.

Muzicant, a real estate executive with a somewhat fearsome reputation, is unlikely to be dissuaded by such views.

During an interview with JTA in his office in the city center, Muzicant cited the many times during his long communal career in which his ideas were dismissed as pipe dreams only to be eventually realized.

"Part of my success is not genius," he said with the faintest glint in his eye. "It’s being stubborn."

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