As a Fishel fellow, I was placed in India with JDC Entwine Multi-Week Global Jewish Service Corps with Gabriel Project Mumbai, and I am now working in Berlin as a JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellow.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Future of European Jewry

According to radio talk-show host Dennis Prager and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who recently spoke at an LA synagogue, the future of Judaism in Europe is bleak and instead lies in the United States, Canada, and Israel.  This is just one of the many pessimistic statements I often hear concerning this topic.  But after spending a weekend with 30 Jewish leaders from all over Europe, I would like to offer a more positive view directly from those living and working in Europe, and reevaluate the fate of European Judaism.  

I recently had the opportunity to lead the opening workshop at JDC’s Generation Next seminar, a four-day-long conference for young Jewish adults from all over Europe who are change makers in their communities.  After participating in the previous Generation Next seminar in Brussels several months ago, I was invited to return as a leader and facilitate a discussion about the current state of European Jewish communities, which for many people is the most meaningful aspect of the seminar.  Countries the participants came from included Germany, Poland, Romania, Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium, Latvia, Ukraine, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Bulgaria, Serbia, the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey, and Russia.

I was asked to share something about American Jewry, so I utilized my own community as an example for participants to contrast their communities with.  I began with a brief presentation about the Jewish community in Los Angeles and the distinctions I have observed between that community and the ones I have been exposed to in Europe. 

An Overview

I then shifted the conversation to the participants, who really serve as ambassadors for each of their countries.  I asked every person to present an overview of their communities, as I did in my presentation.  While I spoke about the current state of my home community, I noticed that every single European participant talked exclusively about their community’s history when asked to describe their community.  Their emphasis on the past is something I have observed during my time in Europe.  Young European Jews are very aware of their histories, which creates a strong foundation that they construct their identities around.

Distinct Issues

I then changed the topic to what makes each community unique.  I presented positive things that distinguish the LA community from others including the diversity, the range of organizations and events, and the emphasis on tikkun olam.  However, the European participants focused primarily on the issues and challenges their communities face looking toward the future. 

Some examples:

A young man from Bucharest, Romania presented a pessimistic view of the fate of Judaism in Romania.  He explained that the community there is rapidly shrinking each year, and Jewish life in the small villages is almost entirely extinct.  When I asked him if he thinks there will still be a Jewish community in Romania in 50 years, he replied, “Not with the way things are going.” 

A participant from Germany explained that with the rate of intermarriage increasing so rapidly among German Jews, he doesn’t see the community lasting much longer.  Even with the abundance of funding the German government provides for its Jewish communities, Germany’s Russian, Israeli, and German-born Jews often seek partners outside the small Jewish community.  Furthermore, the leadership does not invest enough to provide opportunities for young people to get involved.

Another participant from Poland voiced his frustration about how people come from all over the world to see Holocaust-related sites in Poland without considering a visit to Jewish museums or the thriving Jewish Community Centers in Warsaw and Krakow.  He asked how young Polish Jews are supposed to move forward if everything in his community is focused on the past.

Surprising Results

I interjected and shared my observations with the group as a non-European outsider.  I told them that I found it interesting that when asked to describe their communities, they all spoke about the past, while I spoke about the present.  And when asked to talk about something unique about their communities, I expected to hear positives and not the challenges that they told the group about.  I see this understanding and relation to the past and awareness of current issues as something positive, especially among young people, who are essentially the future of these communities.  If you ask young American Jews what the issues facing their Jewish communities are, many would be unsure or indifferent.  This is why I see hope in each of these young European leaders.  They are certain of their Jewish identities and their long histories and are passionate about keeping European Judaism alive.

Taking Action

I told the group, “You’ve discussed the challenges your communities are facing, and you’ve made it clear that you care about the future of your communities, so what can be done?”  There was an outpouring of suggestions and ideas from the participants.  A Serbian who said her community was shrinking because of the difficulties of finding a Jewish partner received suggestions from a young man from Zurich who initiated a singles group.  The two of them also talked about collaborating to organize a big event for Jewish singles from all over Europe.  A young woman from Greece explained that Jewish people are leaving the country because of unemployment, and a young man from Bulgaria told her about a job center program for Jews run by JDC in Sofia.  Two young men from Amsterdam discussed how even with an active Jewish community, it is often difficult to get young people to participate in events because new people never attend.  They spoke with a German girl about working together to plan joint events for the neighboring countries to diversify and expand groups of attendees. 

It was inspiring to witness this enthusiastic collaboration and sharing of ideas, which is exactly the purpose of the Generation Next seminars.  


These young Jews are vital to the survival of Jewish communities in Europe for many reasons including maintaining the synagogues, cemeteries, and other remnants of the flourishing Jewish life that once was.  Many are extreme minorities in their communities, but they are the link between the past and the future of Jewish life in Europe.

That 30 young Jewish adults who are active and who care exist in places where Jews were persecuted is remarkable and a testament to the tenacity of the Jewish people. It made me wonder, what was it that made these 30 young Jews stick with Jewish life and culture while their counterparts did not?

It reminded me of a conversation I had recently with Daniel, a young German Jew who is a leader in the Jewish community in Berlin.  His Jewish mother married a non-Jew and raised him and his brother with little exposure to Judaism, and they even attended Catholic school.  But somehow Daniel found his way to the Jewish community and is an active leader in the community in Berlin, even serving on the board of a new reform synagogue. 

I grew up surrounded by Judaism; my family lit candles for Shabbat, I went to Hebrew school, and I had a bat-mitzvah, so it isn’t surprising that I feel connected to Judaism.  But how do people like Daniel and many participants at the seminar who have minimal exposure to Jewish life and are in the extreme minority in their cities and villages not assimilate, and even more, become active leaders in their communities?  When I asked Daniel that question, he said that he believes people are just born with this passion and link to Judaism, but not everybody discovers it.  He found his connection in the bonds he felt as a teenager with other Jews in his local community that he had never experienced before.  For others, it comes from trips to Israel or seminars like these where they interact and discover immediate connections with other young Jews.  Jewish organizations like JDC that provide opportunities such as these conferences are not only supporting young Jewish leaders but are building networks that will have an impact on the survival of Judaism in Europe.  It would be amazing to bring some of these young Jews to the United States to help them develop connections with Jews from thousands of miles away and to share ideas and inspire each other. 

Not only was it fascinating to learn about Jewish communities that most people don’t even know exist, but experiences like these are giving me a new perspective on world Jewry and are making me realize that I truly am a part of a single, intertwined Jewish world.  The fact that 30 young Jews from such diverse cities and countries were able to come together and have an immediate understanding of the issues they’re facing shows how connected we are.  Whether it’s the young woman from Transylvania who is the only Jew under the age of sixty in her village or the young man from Warsaw who is trying to show the world that his lively community is more than just a sad history, these young people share a passion to keep the Jewish spark alive.  And even in the midst of all the challenges and obstacles still to be overcome, this passion gives me a lot of hope for the future of European Jewry.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Purim + Pesach in Berlin!

I've been terrible at updating this blog while I've been in Berlin, and so much has happened that I don't know what to write about first! So I thought I could start with Purim and Passover because both holidays were packed with events.


Young Adult Purim Party- I teamed up with a local Jewish group for young adults called Jung und Judisch to organize a huge Purim party for young adults in Berlin.  Think hundreds of young people in costumes, a DJ, dancing, singing, and a costume contest in a Berlin bar.  It was a really great night.

We also decided to include the German-Israeli Society, a local group comprised of young adults, most of whom are not Jewish.  Two girls from the group helped organize the party with us, and both are studying Hebrew and Jewish Studies in university, which is really interesting considering neither of them are Jewish.  When I asked one of the girls where her motivation to learn about Judaism comes from, she seemed flustered by the question.  I tried to clarify, explaining that at UCLA, where I studied, the Jewish Studies department is dominated by Jewish students.  However, in German universities, Jewish Studies students are usually not Jewish.  When I asked her why she thinks that is, she shrugged and said, “It’s probably because of our history.”  

Purim at Bambinim- We had several events at Bambinim for Purim including one at our center in the West where I made hamantaschen with the kids (thanks for the recipe, Mom!) and silver crowns out of tin foil.  One of the kids who was dressed as Spider-man decided that I should also be Spider-man, so he painted my face to match his.

At another event at our center in the East, we had dancing, face painting, and different stations where the kids could do arts and crafts and make mishloach manot, gift baskets people give each other on Purim.


Young Adult Seder-  For Pesach, I teamed up again with Jung und Judisch to organize a seder for young adults.  It was a great experience because just two friends and I led the entire seder.  We had around thirty people at the seder from Germany and all over Europe, Russia, Israel, and the U.S., and everybody had different traditions and ways of singing songs that we tried to integrate. We did the seder mostly in German, but each person could read in whatever language they felt comfortable with.  It was a lot of fun, and it was nice to have such a wide variety of people from different organizations and groups.  The next night, I had seder #2 at my apartment, but it was much more low key after such a big event.

Family Seder at Bambinim- I helped organize a family seder with two other women at Bambinim.  We decided to project the hagaddah onto the wall, and we sang a lot of songs and told the story of Pesach using props and the kids as actors.  I made decorations with the kids beforehand that I put up on the walls and we set up cushions on the floor, so the atmosphere was very nice.

Pesach Camp-  We had three days of Pesach camp at Bambinim because of school vacation.  The weather was nice, so we got to take the kids to the park every day.  We also did some gardening in the backyard, which the kids loved, and I led a few arts and crafts activities including making afikomen holders and frogs with party blowers for tongues, which my mom did for us every year at home.  Of course that was a big hit for the kids and not so much for their quickly annoyed parents haha

Yom HaShoah in Israel

I was lucky enough to spend the past five days in Israel with my grandparents.  I’ve been to Israel several times before, but this was a unique trip that made me appreciate and understand my grandparents on a whole different level.  The fact that I happened to be there during Yom HaShoah with my grandparents who are both Holocaust survivors made the trip even more meaningful.

On my first day there, we drove to Jerusalem and visited the Memorial Cave at Yad Vashem, where my grandmother has a plaque for her parents and grandparents who were all killed during the Holocaust.  I had visited the cave before with my brother and then with my parents, but seeing my grandmother light memorial candles at a place that serves as a cemetery for her to visit her family was something I’ll never forget.  I had the opportunity to visit the homes of her parents and grandparents outside of Amsterdam a few years ago, and this experience made it all come together.  My grandmother endured more than any child should, but she was able to come out of it and make a life for herself.  She told me that the most important thing for her was to create a family, something she never had, and her nine grandchildren prove that she succeeded.

After Yad Vashem, we drove over to the Kotel, where my grandpa and his friend were able to charm the security guard into escorting our car right up to the wall.  The ultimate finaglers.  As my grandpa headed over to the men's section, my grandma and I decided to do something different and go to the women's part of the enclosed synagogue that you have to walk through the men's section to get to.  Of course everybody yelled at us and told us to go to the women's section, but we walked in anyway.  On our way out, a woman stopped me and asked us if we wanted to pray.  She turned to a page in her book and then asked if we live in Israel.  "I'm too old to move back here, but my granddaughter is coming here to work soon," my grandma told her.  The lady smiled and handed me a book called "Prayers for Happy Times."  Thinking this lady was one of many at the Kotel who give you things and then ask for a donation, my grandma reached into her bag to get some money.  "Lo, ze matanah (no, it's a gift)," the lady said and wished me good luck in Israel.  

On the morning of Yom HaShoah, my grandpa told me, “Briannale, in Judaism, you must honor the dead,” so we drove to the cemetery his parents are buried at.  Just as we were getting out of the car, the sirens went off.  For those of you who don’t know, on Yom HaShoah every year, air-raid sirens are sounded all throughout Israel, and people stop what they’re doing and stand in silence to pay respect for those who died in the Holocaust.  As the sirens stopped, I watched my grandfather kiss the graves of his parents, and we lit memorial candles and said Kaddish for them. 

During the few days I was there, my grandparents also took me to see other places that were important in their stories like the street my grandpa’s family lived on, the vineyards he worked on as a teenager, the place my grandma taught English and the Kibbutz she worked on and learned Hebrew.  I had seen most of these places before, but seeing them through my grandparents’ eyes gave me a completely different perspective. 

My grandparents’ lives started when they got to Israel.  My grandmother, a victim of the Holocaust and then an adopted home that never gave her love told me that her life really began when she came to Israel on a Young Hadassah trip when she was eighteen and decided to stay.  She told me it was the first time she felt she belonged and had people who cared about her.  My grandfather, who also went through the Holocaust and then tried to get to Israel after the war, was turned away by the British and sent to a refugee camp in Cyprus. I asked him how he felt when one year later he was finally able to step onto Israeli soil, and he closed his eyes and smiled.  “I had nothing but the shirt on my back, but I felt pure happiness.”

One day as we were driving past the kibbutz my grandma lived on when she first came to Israel she said, "As an eighteen-year-old just arriving in this country, I never would have thought that 50+ years later, I would be returning to show my granddaughter these places.  That's a really special experience." And it was a special and powerful experience that I'll always cherish.   

I’m returning to my work in Berlin with an added sense of purpose and understanding of my heritage and excitement for the months that I will serve in Israel!