BERLIN (JTA) — It’s a drizzly Saturday morning in May. Some 160 young Jews, mostly European and ranging from Orthodox to secular, have come to the Hotel Berlin to talk about everything under the sun. Well, almost.
The upbeat, weekend-long event did not focus on anti-Semitism, the Holocaust or Israel, and thus the gathering reflected a shifting approach to Jewish continuity in Europe, 72 years after the end of World War II.
Under the theme “Our World in Transition,” participants in Junction Annual – a three-year-old program of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Schusterman Foundation and Yesod — opened up a Pandora’s box of challenges young Jews in Western countries face: personal, professional and religious.
Junction — an initiative that’s aimed at the 25- to 40-year-old set — is one of the latest examples of a trend among Jewish organizations to let young adults determine their own agenda. Supporters say this is the best way to keep young Jews connected and involved.
“Young adults have a tremendous amount to offer, and it’s healthy for Judaism and for Jews, and I think many organizations know that,” said Jonathan Schorsch, professor of history at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, who facilitated a discussion at the conference on “what it means to be ourselves in a multi-cultural world.”
One thing the weekend’s event made clear: Despite threats of terrorism and rising anti-Semitism, young European Jews aren’t ruled by fears. Most are not leaving for Israel — even if by and large they are Zionist. They’re staying right here, where their survivor grandparents set down roots.
This is Generation 3.0, the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors or of those who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, and they are now finding their voices. They are starting Jewish projects outside existing communal structures, rejecting official definitions of who is a Jew and speaking out politically.
In other words, European Jews — who number about 1.4 million — are no longer keeping a low profile. And they are getting support from the United Kingdom-based Rothschild Foundation and the U.S.-based Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, along with other organizations that want to cultivate this spirit.
In Berlin, where the recent Junction event took place, Generation 3.0 includes people like Martin Schubert, 38, of Berlin, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. He and his wife, Alisa Poplavskaya, are alumni of the Tevel b’Tzedek program — a Jerusalem-based non-governmental organization that brings Jewish volunteers from around the world to rural villages in Nepal and Burundi, where they help local people and study Jewish values.
“It is always better to have an identity where your pride comes from having the power to help others than from being the victim,” said Schubert, who, together with Poplavskaya, gave a couples coaching workshop the conference.
Berlin graduate student Nataliya Pushkin, 26, recently became a host for Moishe House Without Walls — meaning she’ll receive funding to create events for her Jewish peers, “from tikkun olam to social events, religious learning and holidays and festivities,” she said.
“For us to go further as Jewish communities, we need the voices of younger people,” Lela Sadikario, the Milan-based director of Junction, told JTA. For the Berlin event, she said the organization specifically reached out to Jews who are unaffiliated but interested in Jewish life and culture.
Junction is part of an attempt to ensure the future of these Jewish communities that were largely rebuilt by Holocaust survivors. More than 90 percent of the conference’s attendees came from across Europe. All were eligible to apply for “micro-grants” — of up to 5,000 euros — to fund cultural activities, study groups and holiday celebrations in their home cities.
“Younger people often roll between the cracks of the organized Jewish communities,” said Schorsch, who is starting a Jewish Activism Summer School at the University of Potsdam, in which Jewish millennials can focus on projects that help both non-Jews and Jews. Its first students will arrive in July.
Schorsch said he hopes to bridge a gap between religious and secular Jewish identity. Jews seem to face a choice of “either or,” he said, when in fact you need both.
Sarah Eisenman, the New York-based director of JDC’s Entwine project, which seeks to engage those aged 24 to 36, couldn’t agree more. She said she wants “this generation to see Jewish global responsibility as a cornerstone of their identity.”
Entwine runs service work programs with local partners, creating opportunities for volunteer work in Jewish communities in India, Argentina, Turkey, Hungary, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Israel and elsewhere.
The initiative got off the ground in 2012, after a JDC survey of Jewish young adults showed “volunteerism and the opportunity to have a direct impact” as their top interest, Eisenman said. “Mixers and fundraisers and bar nights were the last on the list.”
Through Entwine, “we can create this opportunity, and step back and get out of the way,” she added.
It’s a familiar mantra by now, and the Paris-based European Council on Jewish Communities has been repeating it, too. After a 2014 conference in London on how to keep 18-35 year olds involved in local Jewish life, the council urged “giving them greater power and independence in creating programs which reflect their particular concerns and way of life.”
In many parts of Europe, there are very few outlets for young adults to create cross-denominational events outside the organized communities, noted Alejandro Okret, 39, an Entwine alumnus. Okret is the London-based chief global officer of Moishe House, which supports Jews in their 20s in creating “home-based Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers,” as he described it. Moishe House has 101 houses in 25 countries around the world.
For many of these programs, there are no tests regarding views about Israeli politics, Holocaust remembrance and responses to anti-Semitism.
“Our first question is, what is the purpose of identifying yourself as Jewish — why is it relevant and important?” said Junction’s Sadikario, 35.
There may be no firm answers. But, as always in Judaism, it’s the questions that count.
“Young people are dealing with an uncertain world — we don’t know what it brings tomorrow,” Sadikario said. “And yet if you [consider] the past, now is the best moment to be more optimistic about the future.”