Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jewish Leaders Chart Renewal Path for Eastern European Communities

November 6, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Since the fall of communism more than a decade ago, “community development” has been the buzzword for Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Never has there been such a widespread, concerted effort to build or rebuild Jewish communities in places where organized Jewish life had all but been eliminated.

But charting the right path and creating the right community model is not easy.

Policy planners, field workers and Jewish leaders alike increasingly come up against a complex set of questions:

What unites a Jewish community?

What are its borders, and who has the right to set them?

Can the same community models work in different countries? How does a community operate?

How does “community” feel?

These and related issues have long been part of Jewish public discourse. But they are especially urgent now in countries where Jewish communal life was suppressed — or, as in the Soviet Union, outlawed for decades under communism — and where the shape of community development may be the key to Jewish survival.

Some 80 representatives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee working in the former Soviet Union sat down last week to explore these issues in Central Europe.

The group first held a series of meetings in Budapest with local Jewish professionals, lay leaders and community representatives, then split into teams that traveled to Prague and Warsaw to meet with Jewish community officials there.

The goal was to get a first-hand look at community development models in countries where Jewish communal life had persisted, if weakly, under communism, to weigh the pluses and minuses of such models, and to consider whether they could be applied or adapted in the former Soviet Union.

“The aim was to visit communities that have been around much longer, have a different economic base and different levels of integration,” said Asher Ostrin, director of the JDC’s extensive activities in the former Soviet Union.

“We want to forge links now and gain varied conceptual understanding for our work,” he said. “There is no road map for building communities.”

Most participants were Soviet-born Israelis who now work onsite in JDC offices and projects from Ukraine to Siberia.

For some, it was their first interaction with Diaspora communities outside the former Soviet Union.

The idea was not to come up with concrete answers, but to obtain food for thought as they encountered both differences and similarities in approaches, models and challenges.

In Budapest, the group visited two of the city’s three Jewish day schools, the Jewish Community Center, the Jewish museum, the Jewish hospital, the Jewish old-age home and other facilities.

Small discussion sessions focused on theoretical issues such as Jewish identity as well as pragmatic problems — for example, financial issues, the status of Jewish culture and sometimes strained relations among various religious streams.

“At some levels, they were looking at a mirror,” said Jack Ukeles, a New York-based JDC consultant who led some of the sessions. “It’s given them material to chew on. The commonality of the agenda is as clear as the differences in culture and style.”

Since the late 1980s, more than 1 million Jews emigrated from the former Soviet Union, mainly to Israel. But as many as 1.5 million Jews chose to stay.

In what has been described as a miracle of Jewish revival, hundreds of Jewish community centers, schools, libraries, welfare centers and other bodies have been established across the former Soviet Union in the past 11 years.

But after being outlawed in some places for more than 70 years, these Jewish structures — and even an abstract sense of Jewish community feeling — had to be created from scratch.

“Our JDC staff are on the front lines of community building,” Ostrin said. “But in general, even the most experienced of them have been involved only for 10 years.”

The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary also have seen a resurgence of Jewish life on all levels since the fall of communism. But Jewish populations there are much smaller than in the former Soviet Union — 6,000 in the Czech Republic, 15,000 in Poland, 100,000 in Hungary.

Jewish communal structures also survived to a varying extent in all three countries — as did the physical infrastructure shaping a Jewish presence.

In Prague and Budapest, for example, Jewish communities are headquartered in the same buildings they occupied before World War II and during the Communist period.

These holdovers have had a strong effect on Jewish development over the past decade and, experts say, must be taken into account when planning future policy.

The impact has been both positive and negative.

“On the one hand, the fact there is historical memory serves as an advantage,” Ostrin said. “But the fact that things have had to start from scratch in the FSU is also a plus — it means that the new communities there are not carrying over baggage from the past.”

Nonetheless, he said, “It is clear that borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant when you speak of community development.

“There may be more in common between two small communities in Ukraine and Hungary than between a small community in Ukraine and a big Ukrainian city like Kiev.”

Recommended from JTA