From under police protection, Europe’s Jewish gems try to shine

Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, speaking at the Great Synagogue of Europe in Brussels, March 2012. (Courtesy European Parliament)

Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, speaking at the Great Synagogue of Europe in Brussels, March 2012. (Courtesy European Parliament)

BRUSSELS (JTA) — Under the gaze of a dozen police officers, a single file of Belgians forms outside the Great Synagogue of Europe.

Waiting to enter the shul on its annual “open day” — when the synagogue throws open its doors to the public — many on this Sunday seem puzzled by the police presence.

“Open” is a relative term for Jewish institutions in Western Europe. On a continent where fears of anti-Semitic terrorism run high — and where memories are still fresh of this summer’s bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Burgas, Bulgaria — opening doors is a complicated matter. Security is an omnipresent concern.

“Taking pictures, taking notes and filming are forbidden,” Raphael, a community guard, says at the entrance. “Bags will be searched. Visitors will hear a 45-minute lecture and then leave. Cellular phones must be switched off.”

The European Day of Jewish Culture was born 16 years ago in Strasbourg, France, as a way to build bridges between the Jewish community and non-Jewish Europeans. Today, Jewish institutions in 28 European countries open to the public on the first Sunday of every September, each year highlighting a different theme.

Sahra al-Assad, a young Muslim woman wearing a tight turquoise hijab, is among those standing in line to enter Brussels’ main synagogue. She says she is curious to see a local synagogue. She has seen a synagogue once before, in Spain, but never in her home country of Belgium.

“I came to better understand the religion of my brothers,” she says. “There are many things that set us apart, but I’m convinced we are intimately linked.”

Asked for her thoughts about the security arrangements, she offers, “It reflects a genuine anxiety.”

The friend accompanying al-Assad, a Catholic woman who identifies herself as Sandra, says she has been curious about Judaism ever since a visit to a synagogue in Egypt.

“It was hidden and we weren’t even allowed to take pictures,” she recalls. “I thought I could photograph here in Brussels.”

Pointing at herself, Sandra asks, “What are they afraid of? If they want people to get to know the Jewish community, just let us in.”

Joel Rubinfeld, co-chairman of the recently established European Jewish Parliament is based in Brussels, says many Jewish communities in Western Europe are facing the dilemma of openness vs. security.

“We want to open up to the general public to fight anti-Semitism and ignorance, but that is difficult precisely because of anti-Semitism. It’s a chicken and egg problem,” says Rubinfeld, who previously led the umbrella group representing Belgium’s French-speaking Jews, CCOJB. “If I were an operative planning an attack, I would use today for reconnaissance.”

The “trick,” he says, “is to find a careful balance between caution and openness. If hundreds come to visit despite the complications, it’s a sign the balance is being reached.” 

Rubinfeld adds, “It is a sad fact of life that synagogues in Europe today get the same protection as airports.”

The deadly March 19 attack in Toulouse, France, by an Islamist that left four dead at a Jewish school prompted Belgium’s Jewish communities — themselves no strangers to anti-Semitic violence — to ratchet up their already robust security arrangements. Last month, dozens of Jewish rescue workers from Antwerp held a drill simulating a deadly bombing at a Jewish school.

Despite the lines and the military-style security instructions, some 200 people visited the Brussels synagogue on Sunday. In Antwerp, organized guided tours drew a few hundred people to the city’s Jewish neighborhoods, where at least 10,000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, according to Israel’s Beit Hatfutsot museum. In total, some 40,000 Jews live in Belgium, according to the the World Jewish Congress.

Meanwhile, hundreds of visitors poured into Brussels’ Jewish museum. Many came directly from the Belgian Beer Weekend, which coincided with the Jewish culture day. Tipsy and thankful for the sunny weather, the visitors appear especially receptive to the theme: Jewish humor.

“Some of you may find it unfair that Jews can make jokes about Jews with impunity whereas non-Jews can’t,” Jewish Belgian humorist Richard Kenigsman tells a small audience at the museum’s entrance. “The solution is simple enough: Convert!”

Back in the main synagogue of Brussels, professor Thomas Gergely, a linguist from Universite Libre de Bruxelles, delivers a lecture focusing on Judeo-Christian similarities.

“I don’t mean to shock you, but the Christians among us are worshiping a man who was born Jewish, lived Jewish and died Jewish,” he tells the audience.

Raphael, the security guard, asks one of the visitors to step aside after discovering  that he is recording Gergely’s speech. The visitor tries to argue, but Raphael tells him he must stop recording or leave. The guard softens only after noticing the man’s Israeli accent.

“Next time, it would be helpful if you say you’re from Israel,” Raphael says with a smile.

After the speech, al-Assad exits the synagogue smiling.

“It was beautiful — spiritually, I mean,” she says. “When I talk to Arabs and Jews here, it seems like the conflict there” — in the Middle East — “is the only thing they can talk about, like it’s our only common theme. But I feel also a little bit Jewish, not just Muslim. I’ve heard about the Holocaust my whole life and it’s my story, too. That’s why I’m here.”

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