A Jewish Future for Europe?

by Marcelo Dimentstein

Ever since Europe’s unification over two decades ago, observers have oscillated between pessimistic and optimistic prognoses regarding the future of European Jewish communities. Recently, and exacerbated by the ongoing economic crisis and assaults on democracy by political and religious extremism in Europe, commentators have again swung the pendulum towards the negative, openly lamenting the viability of a Jewish future in Europe.

As an example, Michel Gurfinkiel’s piece in Mosaic, sounding the alarm bells once again, points to a rise in anti-Semitism that is making life for practicing Jews in Europe increasingly unsafe.

On top of this, Jewish communities are dealing with a set of internal challenges that only stand to reinforce concern: the ongoing polarization between religious and secular Jews; the diversification of Jewish identities; issues of conversion and intermarriage; engagement vis-à-vis greater society; self-sustainable community models, or lack thereof; migration and declining demographics, among others.

At the same time, we have individual Jews and communities embracing Jewish life in bold new ways, outside the walls of traditional Jewish spaces and contexts. The Jewish community of Sofia, Bulgaria, as an example, just followed in the footsteps of the Jews of Hungary and Poland by creating the first Jewish street festival in their country. At the event, Jewish-themed workshops and educational sessions, a display of artistically inspired sukkot, and a miniature Western Wall engaged Jewish people not ordinarily associated with the organized community. Such public celebrations – even in a place like Hungary which has seen a resurgence of antisemitism through the Jobbik party – are not just anomalies, but the new reality of Jewish life in Europe and a new entry-point for Jewish engagement.

We are thus navigating in a sea of uncertainties, where the prevailing social, economic and political conditions in Europe have become unclear, precarious, and multifaceted. The question that remains: is any of this good for the Jews?

The relevance and depth of this debate, and the need to enrich it, has convened the ThinkLab, a groundbreaking forum in Oxford, where the JDC-International Center for Community Development will gather luminaries such as George Leeson, Sergio DellaPergola, Dominique Moïsi, Dina Porat, Nicolas Zomersztajn, Diana Pinto, Alberto Senderey, Josh Spinner, Jonathan Arkush, Delphine Horvilleur, and Talia Sasson to analyze the present and future of Jews and Jewish life in Europe.

This critically needed gathering, which will supersede the taboos that tend to muddle debate at the local community level, will touch on Israel, Europe and the Diaspora, pluralism within Judaism, and also anti-Semitism. The hope is that it will address and answer these pertinent questions regarding European Jewish communities today:

  • What place does pluralism have within Jewish communities? Can pluralism be integrated fully within their boundaries?
  • How should “official” communities acknowledge the diversity of Jewish identities that have emerged in the last decades (and that are now established)?
  • What is the role of innovation in making Jewish life more attractive to young members of the communities and the unaffiliated? Who then takes care of the “core” activities (upkeep of synagogues and cemeteries, religious issues, etc.)?
  • How do European Jewish leaders relate to Israel? And what is the most constructive manner to approach this relationship to the Jewish state, taking into account existing contradictions?

After all, Jewish life in Europe lives beyond the vitally important issues of anti-Semitism and security. And without denying that worrisome signs unfolding in Europe, the continent still has tremendous potential for ensuring a robust and self-sustainable Jewish future. Look no further than Sofia, Krakow, and Budapest and the throngs of unaffiliated Jews who are stirring for something more.

So it will be these trends, and the way in which communities will deal with them in the coming years, that will determine the success of Jewish continuity – and Jewish life – in Europe.

At Thinklab, and for the rest of us dedicated to the Jewish future in Europe, forging the path ahead for European Jewish life requires robust and far-reaching conversations as a first step. Anything less ignores the historic opportunity in front of us and favors, however valid, the hand-wringing and doomsday formulations that subvert a grassroots call to action for a Jewish future.

Marcelo Dimentstein, a social anthropologist, is Operations Director for JDC-ICCD.