Uppsala, Sweden — Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” changed Valentina Marcenaro’s life. The Italy-born Marcenaro read it in Italian as an undergraduate at the University of Trento. That book led her to study Jewish texts in order to better understand the novel, and eventually to study — and return to — her own Jewish roots. She eventually wrote her thesis about women in Potok’s work.
Marcenaro now lives in Dresden, Germany, where she organizes cultural events for the Jewish community. Her German husband, a doctor, is in the process of converting to Judaism. She works to attract all of the community’s Jews as well as non-Jews to attend the programs “to get to know Judaism.”
“This is the only way to prevent racism,” she says. “I’m not saying we want old Nazis to show up. We want people to see that we’re exactly like them, we’re not exotic.” She adds, “The time has come for German young people to look forward. Jews no longer need to define themselves through the Shoah. Jewish culture is about so much more than that.”
The loops and detours in Marcenaro’s life that led her back to practicing Judaism with her family and to professional work in the Jewish community are singular, but many of her fellow European participants in last month’s “Summer of Change” in Uppsala, Sweden, had similarly striking stories of reclaiming their Jewish identity and asserting it in creative, meaningful ways.
“Summer of Change” was a high-energy collaboration between three international foundations and organizations, all sharing a vision for revitalizing the European Jewish community — a process they see as already under way.
“I hear voices,” Avrum Burg says of the growing interest in Judaism among young Europeans. “I hear an elephant in the forest. I don’t yet know what the voices are.”
Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset is a member of the board of Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. He spoke with great enthusiasm about the potential generated by the young people he met in Uppsala. “I see something in the making.”
The first two of three successive meetings in Uppsala (all part of “Summer of Change”) were co-sponsored by Paideia; ROI Community, a Jerusalem-based global community of Jewish innovators created by Lynn Schusterman; and JHub: Jewish Action and Innovation, a London-based program funded by the Pears Foundation. The first meeting, Project-Incubator, conceived by Paideia and now in its sixth year, brings together European activists hoping to initiate new projects.
Many of the participants also took part in the second conference, JPropel, a first-ever seminar for young Jewish innovators more advanced in their entrepreneurial work who, as the name implies, would be propelled forward through technical and educational support — and strengthened in their efforts by meeting like-minded folks from all over Europe.
That culminated in a three-day academic conference marking the 10th anniversary of Paideia, which was founded with a grant by the Swedish government as a high-level educational institute to help rebuild Jewish life and culture in Europe. Called “Jewish Perspectives on Transformations in Contemporary Europe,” the academic conference brought together more than 200 alumni of Paideia’s programs from 38 countries, along with members of Sweden’s Jewish community, international guests and a roster of distinguished speakers from Israel, the United States and Europe.
Barbara Lerner Spectre, an American-Israeli educator who is the founding director of Paideia, has coined the term “dis-assimilation,” referring to those who are choosing to identify as Jews, embracing their Jewish identity. Many participants in Paideia’s year of intensive Jewish study come from families that had been long disconnected from Judaism, and a number of them are not Jewish (some eventually convert).
The 42 participants in JPropel — from Eastern and Western Europe — brainstormed about their projects, in varying stages of development: from planning to full-scale institutions. Some — including Elliot Cowan, a British graphic designer who is forming an international network of designers to help Jewish organizations create professional, eye-catching materials and Misha Beshkin, a software engineer living in Estonia who is exploring setting up a similar network of software developers interested in working for the global Jewish community — led skill sessions at JPropel. In other sessions, Piotr Mirski, a Polish klezmer musician pursuing a doctorate in philosophy (who converted to Judaism after studying at Paideia) discussed God and history, and Chana Karmann-Lente, a German woman who founded and leads a Conservative congregation in Hamburg taught Torah cantillation.
In addition, professional consultants from Jumpstart, a Los Angeles based “thinkubator of sustainable Jewish innovation,” and PresenTense, an Israel-based entrepreneur startup platform, along with foundation executives and staff members, led workshops on proposal writing, management, digital methodology, branding, budgeting and effective presentations, and offered individual consultations.
“These young people are truly committed to building a better future. The optimism is inspirational,” says Justin Korda, founding executive director of ROI Community, based in Jerusalem. He praised the intellectual rigor of the Europeans and spoke of their challenge of living with multiple identities, of finding their way as Jews and also as citizens of Europe. “The rest of the Jewish world has a lot to learn from them.”
Korda picked up on two areas where young Europeans stand out, as seen in the projects they showcased: their deep appreciation for arts and culture, and their commitment to dialogue and coexistence with other communities throughout Europe.
Among those with projects promoting Jewish-Muslim understanding, Stephen Shashua serves as director of the London-based Three Faiths Forum, which was founded in 1997 and works with schools, universities, young professionals, artists and politicians to counter ignorance and prejudice. He takes a wide view of “interfaith,” combining it with inter-communal, intercultural and interpersonal relations.
Anti-Semitism came up in conversations at the conference, but it was rarely the starting point. As Patricia Eszter Margit, a participant who has lived in both Budapest and New York, pointed out, European Jews have a high threshold for tolerance when it comes to anti-Semitism. Margit is a novelist and founder of Arts Kibbutz NYC, an international Jewish artists colony.
“I’m always struck when working with Europeans that there really is no such entity as Europeans,’” Shoshana Boyd Gelman, director of JHub, who has worked with American, Israeli and European activists, says. “What there is is a rich mixture of voices and experiences which, although often ignored by Americans and Israelis, enhances my understanding of Jewish peoplehood immeasurably.”
The European Jewish community seems to be many communities, each with different history and current realities. But, during sessions, meals and breaks — including an evening boat ride down the Fyris River, where Sweden’s sun brightens the night until almost 10 p.m. in the summer — participants had opportunities to network. An award-winning Swedish novelist (and former pilot) now exploring his family’s history in a narrative project could confer about memory and art with a Romanian educator whose expertise is teaching about the Holocaust. Meanwhile a professor from Armenia who specializes in intercultural relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle Ages might chat with community organizers from across Europe who are fighting Islamophobia
Participants are mainly in their 20s and 30s, stylishly dressed and impressively articulate in English. Most are decidedly secular, but some are religiously observant. Shashua of Three Faiths Forums describes his peers as “a generation strong in its beliefs and communal ties but committed to the world.”
Their life stories, which many participants generously shared with a reporter, were riveting. A large number of them have one Jewish parent; several spoke of enduring connections to a Jewish grandparent.
Anna Yablonskaya, who was born in Ukraine, the daughter of scientists, didn’t know she was Jewish until she was 13, and is now trying to provide Jewish education for Jews in small towns in Ukraine without rabbis or Jewish schools, through a project called Breathing One Air.
“I’m not a missionary,” she says. “I’m a community builder.”
Their wide-ranging projects include well-established programs like Limmud as well as a London Jewish food festival, a human resource company linking young Jewish communal workers and struggling communities, and a television project in Krakow about Jewish culture and tradition. In an international collaboration, Noemi Schlosser, a Belgian theater director and actress, and Rebecca Joy Fletcher, an American playwright, actress and cantor, are creating a theater piece called “Cabaret: The Forgotten Jewish Voice.” A green theme emerged too, with several projects involving environmental work.
“I now know I’m not alone,” Lievnath Faber, founder of an Israeli film project and salon in Amsterdam, says about meeting fellow activists, and many echo her sentiments.
A new study by the Brookdale Institute shows that all Paideia graduates “continue to be involved in Jewish related activities” in their countries after completing the program, and are overwhelmingly interested in making professional contacts with other graduates.
The “Summer of Change” meetings took place on the campus of Uppsala University, founded in 1477. The final segment, the Paideia Decennial conference, opened in the University’s Grand Auditorium, a domed room fitting its name, with tributes to the academic and societal accomplishments of the graduates and Spectre’s leadership. Gabriel Urwitz, chairman of Paideia, underscored the urgency of intergroup dialogue in Europe, in light of the massacre in Norway a few weeks earlier, and emphasized that Paideia and its graduates are well positioned to be key players.
In a keynote speech, “On Tolerance,” Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal, who chairs Paideia’s Academic Committee, addressed, “What does it mean to live together in difference?” in tribute to the multicultural spirit of Paideia.
Musical performances followed, including a choir of tall blond Swedish young people singing in Hebrew, and Anne Kalmering, a Swedish graduate of Paideia, performing klezmer, Hebrew and Ladino music, which she introduced to Sweden. More sparks of Judaism in unexpected places.