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Startup continent: European Jewry

Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti lighting the menorah during Chanukah 2009 at a "music against racism" concert, whose organizers included the Jewish startup Jewish Meeting Point. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Rabbi Zoltan Radnoti lighting the menorah during Chanukah 2009 at a “music against racism” concert, whose organizers included the Jewish startup Jewish Meeting Point. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

ROME (JTA) — When I was in the United States recently, I gave a series of talks on contemporary Jewish life in Europe. One of my aims was to shed light on some of the creative new initiatives that are shaping the Jewish experience here, often against considerable odds and expectations.

"My eyes were opened to a Jewish world I had no idea existed," one woman told me.

Having written about the Jewish experience in Europe for many years, I sometimes forget how surprised people can be by developments that by now I take for granted.

Americans accustomed to viewing Europe through the prism of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism can be taken aback when they come face to face with such living Jewish realities as newly opened synagogues, crowded Jewish singles weekends and hip-hop klezmer fusion bands.

"American Jews don’t tend to think about European Jewry often, and when we do, it is to lament its imminent demise, the victim of an aging, diminishing population and a sharply disturbing increase in anti-Semitism," Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, wrote this summer.

Some folks — metaphorically I hope — go so far as to express shock to find that a country such as Poland is "in color."

"Where had I seen Poland outside of World War II newsreels, Holocaust movies and photos, and, of course, ‘Schindler’s List’?" Rob Eshman, the editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal wrote last month after visiting Poland for the first time. "That entire movie was in black and white, except for the fleeting image of a tragic figure, a doomed little Jewish girl in a bright red dress."

The American Jewish challenge when it comes to modern Poland, he admitted, "is to reverse the ‘Schindler’s List’ images, to see the country as mostly color, with a little black and white."

An optimistic new report now provides statistical backup for the bold new Jewish realities in Europe that I described in my talks.

Published last month, the 2010 Survey of New Jewish Initiatives in Europe aims to provide a "comprehensive snapshot" of Jewish startups — that is, of "autonomous or independent non-commercial European initiatives" that have been established within the past decade.

"Conventional discussions of Europe often emphasize anti-Semitism, Jewish continuity, and anti-Israel activism," the survey’s introduction states. "While we do not dismiss or diminish those concerns, we know that these are only part of the story. The European Jewry we know is confident, vibrant, and growing."

The findings are remarkably positive.

The survey presents data on 136 European Jewish startups and estimates that some 220 to 260 such initiatives are currently in operation, nearly half of them in the former Soviet Union and other post-communist states.

"There are more Jewish startups per capita in Europe than in North America," it says.

These initiatives, the study says, reach as many as 250,000 people, of whom about 41,000 are "regular participants and core members." They span a broad range of ages and affiliation, although European Jewish startup leaders and founders themselves "tend to affiliate with progressive and secular/cultural forms of Judaism."

Other findings reveal that the "vast majority" of these new Jewish initiatives are focused mainly on "Jewish education, arts and culture, or community building," and most of their financing comes from foundation grants and "grass-roots labor."

The survey was carried out by Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that promotes Jewish innovation, in cooperation with the British Pears Foundation and the ROI Community for Young Jewish Innovators based in Jerusalem.

I asked Shawn Landres, Jumpstart’s co-founder, whether he thought the survey’s findings presented a picture that was too rosy given the challenges still faced by European Jewry.

"I don’t think the survey is overly optimistic," he told me. "The numbers of initiatives and the number of people involved (especially the otherwise unaffiliated) are accurate indicators of the creativity of European Jewry."

Still, he conceded, "the financial figures, especially the small budgets and low number of individual financial contributors, indicate just how fragile they are."

Landres noted that the demographic challenges facing European Jews — long a hot topic for strategic planners — were "complex." But, he said, they could not be reduced to "a single line in a single direction."

"Even if Jewish numbers in Europe are stagnating or declining overall, the threat or opportunity is in the details," he said. "What about intermarried families that identify as Jewish? What about the 80,000 or so people engaged by these new initiatives who have no other connection to the organized Jewish community? What about key population centers like London, Budapest, and Berlin that will remain Jewishly vibrant for generations to come?"

Landres said the fact that the survey showed nearly twice as many startups per capita in Europe as in North America "should challenge a few stereotypes."

But, he added, "I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising, given the number of respondents who feel that established institutions simply aren’t making room for them and their peers."

Landres said all the initiatives analyzed in the survey were in operation as of this year, but he acknowledged that some may not last.

"Even so," he said, "projects need not be permanent to have impact, and the people involved frequently move on to other more successful Jewish communal endeavors armed with invaluable experience. Without risk and tolerance for failure, we cannot make transformative progress."

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," and "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe." She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at http://jewish-heritage-travel.blogspot.com.)

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