One Down and …


… two to go.

In Helena, Arkansas, the Jewish community — numbering barely a half-dozen souls, pictured at right — could not hold on to their 90-year-old synagogue, Temple Beth El. In Selma, Alabama, where I’m headed now, the community is hoping to avoid a similar fate. 

Everywhere I’ve traveled the last two months, Jewish communities are in flux. Some are growing, some are dying. Some benignly accept their fate, others concoct fantastical plans to avoid it.

I don’t have the historical perspective to know whether this degree of change has always been, but I can’t imagine that it has. Nor can I say whether this will continue, or whether some new equilibrium will ultimately be found. 

What I do know is that it’s exhausting to chronicle it all. But oh, the frequent flyer miles. 

Below is my report, just published this week, on another community I visited grappling with a particular kind of change: the Jews of Antwerp.

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."

Read the full story here. 

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