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Around the Jewish World Facing Bleak Demographic Picture, Dutch Jews Scramble for Answers

November 7, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Dutch Jewish leaders are working to devise programs and responses to counter a sobering demographic survey of the Jewish community, the first one conducted in 35 years.

On a recent Friday morning, Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Center was deserted but for four Jewish movers and shakers discussing ways to follow up on the survey. Empty formica-topped tables formed a stark backdrop, despite recent efforts to cosy up the hall for coffee mornings for the elderly.

Almost half of Holland’s 44,000 Jews live in Amsterdam, but this Orthodox center is their only community building. Yet some fear the elderly might soon be the only ones left to cater for.

According to the survey the four leaders were discussing, the majority of Dutch Jews are older than 50, and less than one in 10 are younger than 20. Marriages and births are down, while divorces and mixed marriages are up — and rising.

Just over a quarter of Dutch Jews belong to a synagogue. Only 6 percent are observant, and 57 percent follow no Jewish practices at all.

Yet according to the survey, a clear majority would be sad to see the Jewish community decline, and 72 percent said being Jewish is fun.

That creates a dilemma for Jewish leaders struggling for ways to counter the community’s decline.

“The Jewish community doesn’t exist; this is a collection of individuals,” says Chaya Italiaander, 50. The Passover seders and Purim parties she organizes for Amsterdam’s Orthodox community attract 300 participants, including nonmembers who may not be Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law.

“They obviously feel a need for tradition, religion. But our religion is almost too complex to pick up again once you’ve lost it,” Italiaander says. “We must offer them a way back.”

For Wanya Kruyer, 47, that is not enough, though she claims that Shabbat services in the Reconstructionist synagogue she helped found are the biggest in Amsterdam.

“Religion is only one part of our rich cultural heritage,” she says.

Kruyer wants to form an independent Jewish community center in the center of Amsterdam that will be open to all who identify as Jews.

“There is a large group of lonely, unaffiliated singles out there,” Kruyer says. “They need a place to meet for meals and cultural activities. When you meet, you marry and may even join a synagogue.”

Rabbi Shmuel Spiero, 33, disagrees.

“People would go to this club looking for a Jewish partner and might find afterward that the one they met is not what they think,” the Chabadnik says, meaning that they may not be Jewish according to Jewish law.

Spiero is the rabbi of a large area surrounding the small town of Haarlem, near Amsterdam. He says the recent survey is overly pessimistic, and sees no reason to change course.

“The number of synagogue members is declining, but we are seeing a growing number of people at our activities, and even weekly services in places that used to have nothing,” he says.

Ronny Naftaniel, head of the secular Zionist organization CIDI and a member of the Central Jewish Organization in the Netherlands, says the community should welcome anyone who identifies with the Jewish community in any way.

Even more worrying than the tragic demographic data, he says, is the fact that most Dutch Jews identify Jewishly only because of World War II and anti-Semitism, both negative factors. The only other binding element is Israel.

“We need to send our teens there to meet other Jews; this is the only way to give them a sense of community,” Naftaniel says. “We need subsidized programs like Birthright; if the U.S. can do it, we can. And we must do it now, before it’s too late. If we use the restitution funds for this, at least some good will have come out of World War II.”

Naftaniel was one of the main negotiators who reached a restitution agreement with the Dutch government last year.

This included the return of $145 million taken from the account in which the Nazis deposited the financial assets of Holland’s 140,0000-member prewar Jewish community, but was never returned. Financial institutions and insurance companies also are compensating the community for unclaimed assets.

The bulk of the funds are being distributed among survivors, but up to 20 percent is earmarked for communal purposes. The results of the demographic survey may well influence decisions about its distribution.

In the decades since the World War II, Jews have been almost invisible in the Netherlands. Nobody wanted to be reminded of their fate. Many survivors protected their children from the Jewish culture and religion that had proved so dangerous for them.

But the run-up to the restitution fight generated a wave of publicity and interest in things Jewish, and being Jewish has become almost fashionable in the Netherlands. A recent survey into the repatriation of Holocaust survivors and other returnees, such as forced laborers, was covered by all the national media. So was the Jewish demographic survey; the country’s most respected daily, in fact, dedicated a whole section to “Jews in Holland.”

There is a yearly Jewish music festival — hugely popular with Jews and non-Jews alike — and a Jewish book weekend. This year’s book events, held last weekend, drew full houses. Klezmer music and Yiddish language courses are blooming.

Public interest in Jewish culture and religion appears to have enabled Dutch Jews of the postwar generation to enjoy their own culture again, and the more Jewishly ignorant among them find their tradition as exotic as do their non-Jewish friends.

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