BRUSSELS, Belgium (JTA) — Ask European Jewish leaders about the major challenges facing their communities and you’re likely to get an earful about how hard it is to find mates for young singles.
London-born Rabbi Zevi Ives thinks he has hit upon a solution.
For three years Ives, the Brussels-based director of the European Center for Jewish Students, or ECJS, has hosted gatherings for students and young professionals from across the continent, effectively creating a pan-European social network for Jews to socialize and party.
Ives’ strategy is straightforward: He promises a well-organized event, a nice hotel, good food and "lots of l’chaim." Though the food is kosher and the atmosphere — on Shabbat at least — is religious, the Chabad-trained rabbi says Judaism is "not stuffed down their throats."
At least five marriages have resulted from the events, and four more are pending, according to Ives.
"I think it’s working,” he told JTA.
Last weekend’s Party Like a Jew event in the Belgian capital was Ives’ latest creation. Some 400 Jews from all over Europe attended the Shabbat program, and an additional 400 turned up for a Saturday night ball.
While Ives considers his programs to be about three things — Jewish continuity, pride and identity — most participants had one thing in particular on their mind.
"I’m definitely here to meet a guy," said Gabi T., a 27-year-old parole officer from London who, like most people interviewed at the event, declined to be fully identified.
"It’s going all right," she said just before departing for the ball, the climactic event. "But I’m not being chatted up enough and it’s quite annoying."
Without fail, the 400 participants who came to Brussels bemoaned the paucity of opportunities to meet Jewish mates in their home communities, even when those communities are in major Jewish centers such as London and Paris.
Though one attendee from Zurich described the event as a "nightmarish" stereotype of young Jewish singlehood, many said they appreciated the chance to socialize in a purely Jewish setting and the critical mass of Jews the weekends draw.
Melody Paros, attending an ECJS event for the first time, said it was great to meet people from all over Europe rather than the "narrow-minded Parisians" she knows from home.
With the rise of the European Union and the decline of national boundaries across the continent, a new Jewish network was emerging, she said.
"I think this kind of project wouldn’t have been successful 20 years ago when Europe wasn’t so open," Paros said.
Surveying the pre-Shabbat dinner mingling, a Swiss Jew who declined to give his name compared the gathering to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the locale that is to Jewish singles what Hollywood is to aspiring starlets.
"Here you have a little Upper West Side every few months or so," he said.
Well, almost. After the sun went down Saturday, and after the Simon Wiesenthal Center screened a film about the origins of Israel — the center and ECJS recently concluded a partnership agreement — participants retreated to their rooms to prepare for the ball. Within the hour they were milling about the lobby, the women in heels and cocktail dresses, the men in trim suits and neckties. Some were newcomers to ECJS; others had been to a half-dozen events.
Some of the men whispered, almost conspiratorially, that if the connection lasted only for the evening, that was all right, too. As the night wore on and couples on the dance floor gripped each other closely, it seemed a few might get their wish.
All of which might seem a bit unusual for a Chabad-trained rabbi to be facilitating. Some have questioned Ives’ methods, he acknowledges. But the Orthodox rabbi skirts any religious problems he might have about his role enabling such coupling by leaving the actual organizing of the Saturday night ball to the local Belgian Jewish students chapter, the Union des Etudiants Juifs de Belgique.
Nonetheless, he encourages the party, saying that if it weren’t for ECJS, the same people would be in another club on a Saturday night — one where they likely wouldn’t be surrounded by other Jews.
"I think we have to change a little," Ives said, "but without, obviously, changing the Torah."