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Around the Jewish World: European Jewish Communities Discuss How to Work As a Team

June 1, 2000
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Experts are warning that European Jewry must find ways to better educate its leaders if it wants to become a full-fledged “third pillar” of world Jewry alongside Israel and North America.

“European Jews as individuals are highly talented and in good shape, but the collectivity — the communities — are in trouble,” warned Barry Kosmin, executive director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “There is a need to improve the knowledge base and skills of leaders so the `team’ performs better.”

To begin this teamwork process, senior Jewish lay leaders from across Europe have targeted issues that they say are essential for European Jewish survival, and they pledged to work more closely together.

“There needs to be a new vision,” Alberto Senderay of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee told a meeting of the European Council of Jewish Communities in Barcelona this week.

Some 116 delegates from 51 Jewish communities in 34 countries attended the Barcelona meeting. They included lay leaders from the emerging communities in post-Communist Eastern and Central Europe as well as from established communities in the West.

The meeting was largely devoted to workshops addressing broad issues that are common to all European communities — from the 600,000-strong community in France to the 200 Jews who live in Macedonia.

More than 70 communal leaders were asked to rate the urgency of these issues.

According to their responses, the most important concern was that of outreach to the unaffiliated or alienated, and particularly of attracting the so-called “missing generation” between the ages of 20 and 45.

Other priorities include:

Raising money for local needs, rather than those of Israel, by tapping into European Union sources, among others;

“Jewish coexistence” amid what the group described as fragmentation and polarization among Orthodox, Reform and other Jewish streams;

Improving and developing Jewish education, particularly for adults;

Property restitution;

Social welfare.

“There was a lot of discussion, including an emphasis on the need to communicate and network, but not much concrete,” said one attendee.

The meeting came one year after a landmark ECJC General Assembly, held in Nice, attracted more than 600 Jewish representatives — one of the biggest such Jewish gatherings in Europe since the Holocaust.

“The message from Nice was that European Jewry feels the need to organize itself and work together,” said Cobi Benatoff, of Italy, who was re-elected ECJC president at the Barcelona meeting.

Based in Paris, the ECJC exists to foster the exchange of information and know- how among European Jews. Many of these meetings — which include issue-oriented conferences, training sessions and even singles’ weekends — are aimed at fostering a sense of European Jewish identity and enabling a significant European Jewish voice to be heard alongside those of Israel and American Jewry.

“Finally, I can believe in the rebirth of Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust,” Michael Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of German Jews, told the delegates in Barcelona. “Now, Jews don’t have to give thanks for everything, and we are truly citizens of our countries.”

A number of delegates to the Barcelona meeting had met just three weeks earlier in Washington at a gathering of Jewish communal leaders and representatives from 40 countries sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

The meeting was the AJCommittee’s seventh annual International Leadership Conference.

“To date, it has been a paradox that if you wanted to exchange information, you went to Washington, not to somewhere in Europe,” Tomas Kraus, executive secretary of the Union of Czech Jewish communities, told JTA.

He said such exchanges and the network of contacts that has grown out of them, have been vital in his community’s development. It is just as vital, he said, for Jewish organizations to listen to local communities to learn of their needs before offering assistance.

“Among post-Communist Jewish communities, there are many needs in common, but each community is also unique and alive,” he said. “Every Jewish community has to act differently because of its national mentality, or political climate. Most Israeli or other Jewish agencies want to impose some patterns — but this is not possible.”

Benatoff said European Jewry was coping with two realities: The reality of the old, established Jewish communities and that of the emerging communities, which have developed and revived mainly since the fall of Communism.

“Our objective is to see how the communities with more experience can help the newer communities through initiatives such as twinning or adoption,” he said.

Several twinning initiatives have been undertaken between individual Jewish communities in recent years — mainly between communities in post-Communist countries and communities or congregations in the United States.

Last week, for example, representatives of the Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C., were meeting in Budapest with Jewish community leaders to establish a partnership arrangement.

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