For Antwerp Jews, turns out diamonds aren’t forever

The diamond district in Antwerp is no longer the virtually exclusive domain of Jews that it once was. (Ben Harris)

The diamond district in Antwerp is no longer the virtually exclusive domain of Jews that it once was. (Ben Harris)

Alexander Zanzer, photographed in his Antwerp office on Nov. 17, 2009, says Jewish wealth in the city has dropped tenfold. (Ben Harris)

Alexander Zanzer, photographed in his Antwerp office on Nov. 17, 2009, says Jewish wealth in the city has dropped tenfold. (Ben Harris)

Benjamin Lubelski, in his bicycle store in Antwerp, on Nov. 17, 2009, makes his living outside the diamond business. Growing numbers of Antwerp Jews are having to follow this model. (Ben Harris)

Benjamin Lubelski, in his bicycle store in Antwerp, on Nov. 17, 2009, makes his living outside the diamond business. Growing numbers of Antwerp Jews are having to follow this model. (Ben Harris)

Antwerp's Jewish district has something of the feel of a modern shtetl. (Ben Harris)

Antwerp’s Jewish district has something of the feel of a modern shtetl. (Ben Harris)

ANTWERP, Belgium (JTA) — Some years ago, Benjamin Lubelsky’s son asked him for help fixing his bicycle, a preferred mode of transport here among Jews and gentiles.

Lubelsky, a Bobover Chasid, acquired the necessary parts and soon was fielding requests from neighbors for similar services. Seeing the potential for a business, he acquired training in bicycle mechanics and opened his own shop, Gal Gal — Hebrew for wheel — in the heart of this city’s Jewish quarter.

A generation ago it would have been unheard of for a Jew in Antwerp to get his hands dirty as a mechanic. Jobs in the city’s Jewish-dominated diamond industry were abundant, lucrative and required little training. Upwards of three-quarters of Antwerp Jews relied on them for their livelihoods.

"When I was a child," Lubelsky said, "most of the Yiddin were in diamonds."

Those days are a memory now.

Most of the low-skilled diamond cleaving jobs have been shipped off to India and elsewhere. In their wake, international businessmen have gained a foothold in the diamond trade, relieving Jews of their once commanding position in the market.

The change has resulted in an enormous loss of Jewish wealth and vastly enlarged the rolls of Jewish welfare recipients. It also has forced Jews to seek out new means of livelihood — as taxi drivers and shopkeepers, in real estate.

Perhaps most significant, it has brought to a close decades of job security during which virtually anyone could, after a few months of training, acquire work that reliably provided the means to support a vital Jewish life.

"It’s pure Darwinism," said Alexander Zanzer, director of the Royal Society for Jewish Welfare, commonly known as the Centrale. "The Jewish community has to adapt or die."

The Darwinian analogy is sounded frequently these days among the Jews of Antwerp, who still rank among the most unique Jewish communities in the world.

Approximately half of the community is Orthodox or Chasidic — an astonishingly high figure by the standards of the Jewish world — and it is among the last in Europe whose members live, work and worship within a defined Jewish quarter in the city center.

The neighborhood has the feel of a modern shtetl.

Black-hatted Chasidim hurry about along narrow lanes, their sidelocks trailing in the wind. Children and adults cycle along Antwerp’s extensive network of bike lanes. Along the Schupstraat, the pedestrian street in the Jewish quarter that is ground zero for the global diamond trade, yarmulke-wearing men cut business deals with partners from around the world.

"Antwerp is the last Jewish ghetto of Europe," said Shmulie Markowitz, a local travel agent. "Religious or not, everyone speaks heimishe Yiddish. Even by the non-Jews, the code word for closing a deal is ‘mazel.’ "

That kind of insularity was enabled by easy diamond jobs that obviated the need to acquire higher education and even fluency in the local languages.

"Why would they?" asked Rabbi Aharon Kohen, a Belzer Chasid and the spiritual leader of the Moriah synagogue. "They go into diamonds, they make double, triple the amount. There was no good reason to do anything else."

Today the reasons are mounting.

At the Antwerp Diamond Symposium in November, an annual event that attracts the leading figures of the diamond world, the talk was of a "new normal" for the industry. The global financial crisis is rewriting the rules for a trade that given the particularities of trafficking in precious gems, relies significantly on trust and longtime business relationships.

The symposium once was a lavish affair; former President Bill Clinton was a special guest in 2003. This year’s event, held in the functional confines of a conference center, felt more like an academic conclave. But the changing face of the industry could be read elsewhere, too: in the audience, where a smattering of yarmulkes and black fedoras were swamped by a sea of Indian and Asian businessmen.

"The Jewish community lost its identity with the diamond industry," said Ari Epstein, the deputy CEO of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, the industry group that organizes the symposium.

It also lost vast personal fortunes.

According to Zanzer, the community has seen a tenfold loss of wealth that has sent the ranks of Jewish needy soaring. The Centrale is spending some $2.3 million per year to support more than 700 Jewish families — up from 100 families a decade ago.

"We have seen the poverty go up exponentially over the last five years," Zanzer said.

The numbers only tell part of the story. In the past, families may have needed temporary assistance to manage tough times. Today they need help keeping their children fed.

"The gravity is totally different," Zanzer said.

Beyond the rising poverty statistics, a shifting economic landscape is likely to effect deeper psychic changes among the Jews of Antwerp.

Moving into other professions will require training and interactions with wider Belgian society that mostly had been unnecessary. It also may provide the final impetus for those who have long chafed at the community’s conservatism to seek new opportunities abroad.

"I’m fed up being the only religious Jew that goes into a bar," said Barry Mellinger, a marketing executive hoping to relocate to New York.

People will have to adapt, Epstein said.

"The recycling from the diamond business to other businesses is a transition which is very painful," he said. "It was easy money. It was a good living. It was security. You knew when you were born what you were going to do."

That kind of security was particularly appealing for the more religious elements of a community that skews toward the traditional, enabling them to lead lives marked by minimal interaction with the wider world. For the same reasons, the fervently Orthodox from New York to Tel Aviv have gone into the diamond trade.

"It’s not a problem of the Antwerp diamond community," Epstein said. "It’s a question of how do religious people make a living in today’s world. That is the question."

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