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At European Jcc Conference, It’s Time to Shmooze and Share

June 2, 2003
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Riga’s 9,000-strong Jewish community already has penciled in Aug. 16 as a central event on its calendar.

On that date — which corresponds to the 15th of Av on the Hebrew calendar — the 15th Jewish couple who met through the city’s Jewish community center will get married.

Viktoria Gubatova is going to town for the occasion. Gubatova intends to have the women decked out in white dresses surrounded by a serenading troop of men, an attempt to recreate the talmudic festival of love marked on the 15th of Av.

Gubatova is the driving force behind Riga’s JCC, and one of two delegates from the Latvian capital who attended last week’s first European Conference of Jewish Community Centers that was held over three days at the Paris JCC.

Like the other 150 or so delegates from 22 countries, Gubatova has her own concept of what makes a JCC tick — and she came to Paris to share it with other participants, as well as to pick up tips from them.

The former Soviet Union now boasts around 180 JCCs, more than three times more than in Western Europe.

“Now, though, we have a different problem,” Gubatova said. “Many Jews left Latvia in recent years, and many that remained feel alone. These people were accustomed to being among Jews. Our job is to interact with these people.”

Bulgaria, where the community is of a similar size as Latvia’s, also is using JCCs to promote Jewish organization.

The Shalom umbrella organization has 19 branches throughout the country, each of which has a kindergarten and school. The organization recently set up a “leadership school” to prepare teen-agers to act as counselors or advisers to younger members of the community, said Sara Cohen, Shalom’s organizer in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.

Jo Zrihen is equally proud of the Paris community center, though his model bears little resemblance to those in Eastern Europe and probably even less to JCCs in North America.

Located in the heart of the French capital, the Paris JCC serves the whole of the Paris community, which numbers at least 250,000.

The center’s function is “to act as a place to meet and find Jewish identity,” Zrihen said.

But the center also has a role beyond the Jewish community — its events attract non-Jews as well, he says.

“This center is open, tolerant and pluralistic. It is community-based rather than ‘communautariste,’ ” or sectarian, Zrihen said.

Jerry Spritzer, president of the World Confederation of JCCs, says the fact that Jewish community centers can play such different roles in different countries is symbolic of the centers’ inherent pluralism.

“To form any kind of network between Jews of different backgrounds means that we need to be broad in our outlook,” Spritzer told JTA. “Of all the Jewish institutions, the JCC is the one broad enough to allow for diversity. Whether you’re Orthodox, Reform, intermarried or a non-believer, if you feel a part of the community and you want to mix with other Jews, the JCC is open to you.”

Spritzer accepts that the role of the JCC has evolved greatly over the years.

Originally it was a North American phenomenon, he said. When immigrants came from Eastern Europe, “settlement houses” — forerunners of today’s JCCs “helped them to acclimatize to the new culture. People were taught English and how to settle in American society,” he said.

Today, however, the focus has changed from acculturation to educating and bringing Jewish culture closer to Jews – – “putting the J back into JCC,” in the words of Smadar Bar-Akiva, the world confederation’s executive director.

She hopes that the Paris conference — the first pan-European JCC venture — will encourage Jewish peoplehood and pluralism, and encourage more JCCs to engage professional Jewish educators, Bar-Akiva said.

The idea of associated European JCCs is a fairly recent concept in the movement. The Paris conference came about largely as an initiative of the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee and the European Council of Jewish Communities.

The European conference was important for building links between JCCs across Europe, Bar-Akiva said, but also was a recognition that JCCs are entering a new era with new challenges.

That point was emphasized by Alberto Senderey, from the JDC’s Paris office.

There is a need to identity JCCs’ potential clients in the 21st century and adapt the centers to different community needs, he said.

“Our challenge is to identify what the post-modern Jew is looking for,” Senderey said.

Jews today can’t be easily pigeon-holed, he said, noting that modern Jews often pick and choose aspects of their identity from both Jewish culture and the wider society.

“There are Jews who eat kosher at home but not outside; there are mixed marriages where both cultures are practiced,” he said. “We have to prepare for” people “for whom contradiction is not a problem.”

JCC therefore must “create situations and not just buildings,” he said. “We need to create living rooms” where “Jews meet other Jews to do something Jewish.”

The conference also emphasized the bond between more established JCCs in North American and newer ones in Europe.

North American JCCs aren’t looking “to impose our own model, but to showcase our laboratory structure,” said Lester Pollack, former head of the North American JCC federation and a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“It’s up to them to pick and choose what works for them,” he said.

Similar views were expressed by the current head of the North American JCC federation, Allan Finkelstein. Individual centers are shaped by their own society and community, he said.

But “one glue binds us together building people-to-people relationships with Israel,” he said.

Ultimately, Finkelstein said, JCCs share a common goal and ideology and should always be aware that they are “larger than the local community.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Eastern European delegates at the conference could benefit immensely from the experience of JCCs in western Europe and the United States, said Margarita Drozdinskaya, a delegate from Moscow.

The 1990s, when communities in Eastern Europe began to rebuild after the fall of communism, “were a romantic period for us,” she told delegates.

“Now it’s time for a period of analysis, to look back and learn from our mistakes,” she said. “We adopted Western ideas, but we cannot copy them identically.”

However, the base is strong, and JCCs are well established across the former Soviet Union, Drozdinskaya said.

In true JCC spirit, however, even within the former Soviet Union there are enormous differences between centers in the big cities and those in smaller Jewish communities, she said.

That diversity no doubt would please Spritzer.

“There are places which are not called JCCs but they have the same function,” he said.

“The best way to describe people here is to take one of the c’s from JCC and put it in front of the ‘J,’ ” he said. “We are centers for the Jewish community and the best institution for Jewish continuity.”

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