by Joshua Avedon
Rededication – the act of restoring something to holiness – is a defining element of Jewish life. More often than not, Jews lose the first round with an adversary, only to persevere and ultimately thrive. Not long ago, the Jewish narrative in Europe was one of vanishing communities, crumbling buildings and decreasing relevance. But in recent years, a new story has become visible, illuminated by hundreds of Jewish startups reaching hundreds of thousands of people.
The tiny lights of Jewish rededication are burning brightly across the continent. The emerging organizations and communities in Europe are intimate and authentic expressions of Jewish values as lived in a modern European context. Most are focused on learning, the arts, or community – they embrace the most permeable and accessible parts of Jewish life. They also attract diverse audiences and welcome non-Jews to participate. And they look outward – many actively build relationships with the broader community rather than concentrating on purely “Jewish” issues. The Jewish innovators in Europe are real evidence that rooted cosmopolitanism is the new Jewish identity.
For much of Jewish history the struggle for survival has been told as a clash of civilizations – either we win or Amalek (the bad guy) does. Living in such a struggle makes everything feel like a fight to the finish, whether battling an actual enemy or simply wrestling with demographics or apathy. The Macabees were those kinds of purists. They were fighting not only a political battle to oust the Greco-Syrians from the Temple in Jerusalem, but also a culture war against the overwhelming influence of Greek civilization on Jewish thought and practice. The Maccabees won the battle to recapture the Temple, but the culture war was over before it began. Hellenization had taken root. The loss of a pure Jewish identity is often portrayed as a tragedy, but the course of Jewish history is filled with examples of how Jewish culture was changed and improved by our encounters and interactions with other civilizations. And how Jews have, in turn, shaped those civilizations for the better.
European identity (Jewish and otherwise) is by nature both multi-dimensional and highly fluid. The current rededication in Europe is being fed by eclectic influences from a variety of sources. The result is a future-focused sector that celebrates Jewish life in distinctly European ways. In Europe, multiple identities are more the rule than the exception, and today that’s working to the benefit of Jewish life there. For a very long time we’ve been looking at Jewish Europe as an oil lamp that’s pretty much out of fuel. Have a look at the light.
Joshua Avedon is the COO and co-founder of Jumpstart, a think tank, catalyst, incubator and advocate for sustainable Jewish innovation around the globe. Jumpstart, along with partners Pears Foundation and the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators, recently published Key Findings from the 2010 Survey of New Jewish Initiatives in Europe, a study of European Jewish nonprofit startups.
This article first appeared on ROICommunity.org; reprinted with permission.