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.

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