The change has come to Jewish life in Eastern Europe



ROME (JTA) — Covering the development of Jewish life in Europe in the 20 years since the fall of communism, I have witnessed many landmark moments.

Among them are many “firsts” — the first rabbis to take up their posts, the first bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings in decades, the first new synagogues, the first kosher restaurants, the first Jewish schools, etc.

There were also the first conflicts between Reform and Orthodox, between young generations and the establishment, between rival Jewish factions struggling for communal power.

Sometimes the symbolism was overwhelming: Jewish life and free expression of Jewish identity were re-emerging in the one-time Jewish heartland, in countries whose Jewish populations had been decimated by the Holocaust and where a Jewish presence was long considered a closed chapter of history.

The image it often conjured up for me was of fragile tendrils emerging through ashes.

Over time the tendrils took hold. The new life they represent is still delicate and still needs a lot of nurturing — financial and otherwise. Eastern Europe’s emerging Jewish communities face internal and external challenges, and it’s doubtful that many of the tiny far-flung communities ultimately will survive.

But Eastern European Jewish life generally is here to stay. That was not at all apparent before the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

In Warsaw in the early 1980s, when I first met the Jewish author and journalist Konstanty Gebert, the sense was that there was no future for Jews in Eastern Europe.

“I believe we are the last ones. Definitely,” Gebert told an interviewer.

Recently, however, Gerbert heralded Polish Jewish life, present and future.

“There is a bar mitzvah in my shul next week. The yearly Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow is just around the corner. Midrasz, the Jewish magazine, comes to my mailbox regularly late, as always,” he wrote in a recently published essay. “My younger son graduated from the city’s Jewish school. My older son was press spokesman of the Warsaw kehilla for some time. My invitation for the Israeli Independence Day reception just came in.”

In Prague, where the affiliated Jewish community numbers at least 1,600 and the various Jewish denominations have five active synagogues, I remember the intensity of emotion at a 1992 ceremony when Karol Sidon, a writer and one-time anti-communist dissident, was inaugurated formally as the city’s rabbi.

It was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and a standing-room crowd filled the opulent sanctuary of the ornate Jubilee Synagogue.

“All my life I’ve been moving in a circle toward the inauguration,” Sidon had told me a few days earlier. “People do things unconsciously; they don’t always consciously decide what to do. Their subconscious leads them to it.”

Sidon was born in 1942 to a Jewish father who died in the Terezin concentration camp and a gentile mother who survived the war. As an adult, Sidon formally converted and escaped to Germany, where he studied Judaism in the 1980s before completing his rabbinical studies in Israel.

Sidon, who is Orthodox, is still Prague’s chief rabbi, though he was ousted briefly in 2005 during bitter infighting between Jewish community factions.

“I remember when all of us would be hiding in one synagogue and leaving in a way that no one would spot us,” said Peter Gyori, deputy chair of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities and also head of the non-Orthodox Beit Praha, recalling the bad old days when almost anything Jewish was suppressed or suspect.

“We live now in the luxury of ‘fighting’ among various communities and groups,” he said, “and not going to this or that synagogue.”

In July 1995, Prague was the scene of another first — the first conference since the Holocaust that was dedicated to planning strategy for the future of Jews in Europe. It may seem odd to single out a conference as one of the key moments of Jewish development in post-communist Europe. But this one, called “Planning for the Future of European Jewry,” was in fact a landmark.

The three-day meeting aimed to assert, for the first time, “that Jews in Europe can take the future into their own hands, an attitude inconceivable before 1989.”

It drew 200 Jewish community leaders, policymakers and scholars from 25 countries across Europe, East and West, as well as the United States and Israel.

Participants included Orthodox and secular Jews, rabbis and laypeople. Many, meeting for the first time, forged networks that persist to this day.

The meeting was the first international forum to identify and outline many of the issues that have since dominated the European Jewish policy agenda: relations between Diaspora Jews and Israel; how to define Jewish identity and what constitutes a Jewish community; anti-Semitism and interfaith activities; the relationship of Jews to Europe; how to reach out to the unaffiliated.

Speaking to the meeting, Gebert described the Jews of post-communist Europe as “shipwrecked Jews” who were struggling to reclaim a Jewish identity that had been submerged under communism, and in many cases did not know which way to turn.

The conference was an exciting moment — the first formal occasion in which the concept of a post-communist, pan-European identity was broached.

As such it reflected the energy and optimism that exploded after the fall of communism and led many observers to dub the 1990s “the Jewish decade.”

Czech President Vaclav Havel, whose first foreign trip after becoming president in 1989 was to Israel, met with participants.

“I believe Jews will continue to live a life of their own,” he said, “and that new generations will emerge.”

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