Connecting to Ashkenazi Heritage, in Ashkenaz Itself

Food in the Ashkenazi tradition; image Girl with Spoon

Though today it is most commonly associated with gefilte fish, herring and potato kugel, Ashkenazi Judaism encompasses a rich tapestry of philosophy, arts, language, halachic discourse, and history. Born in the Middle Ages in Germany, it spread across Eastern Europe and into the lands now known as the Former Soviet Union.

So many Russian Speaking Jews (RSJs) have recently emigrated from the FSU to Germany that they “now form the overwhelming majority of Germany’s Jewry,” reported Eliezer Ben Rafael, a researcher at Tel Aviv University. The majority of them, he said, have Ashkenazi roots.

As a means of strengthening the sense of Jewish identity and belonging of young, Russian-speaking Jews in Germany and promoting their connection to the wider European and global Jewish communities, the Jewish Agency has been sponsoring the first (of what will become an annual) “Ashkenazi Heritage Project,” which gives young students and activists an intellectual and practical framework to explore the historical and cultural underpinnings of their Ashkenazi roots.

The project, co-funded by the Jewish Agency, the Claims Conference, and other sponsors, encourages the exploration of the history of Ashkenazi communities by way of academic study, philosophical discussions, arts, and tours. It is part of the Jewish Agency’s recent intensification of its activities in Germany, in its global effort to strengthen the connection between the next generation of Jews and their history, people and homeland.

The Ashkenazi Heritage Project began in March of 2011 with an introductory seminar on Ashkenazi history and philosophy, with 30 participants ages 22 to 28, the majority of whom were Russian-speaking Jews. For some, it was a first exposure to the connection between their family origins and the rich heritage of Ashkenazy Jewry. They later engaged in the project’s “Academy on Wheels,” a 10-day summer academic program which took participants to sites of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage in cities across Germany and Poland, including Krakow, Wroclaw, Gorlitz, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Mainz, Worms, and Spire.

Most recently, an additional 20 participants joined the group for a seminar in Munich on the topic of “Features of the Jewish Pedagogical Tradition.” The seminar focused on Jewish education in Central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the educational system in modern Israel.

“We tried to build this Project in a way that shows participants the historical, cultural, and intellectual dilemmas of Ashkenazi Jewry; the roots and origins of those communities and of Askenazi culture; and its role in education and social life in Jewish Communities today,” said Michael Yedovitzky, Director of the Jewish Agency’s activity in Germany. “We want to give them a sense of pride for the people they are part of, a way to find a connection to the Jewish community of today, and the desire to continue exploring their heritage on their own.”

Judging from participants’ feedback, the project, which is currently scheduled to end in spring of 2012, has already succeeded in inspiring them to continue their Jewish activities and activism. “After the trip, the desire to bring some diversity in the life of Jews of Germany has become stronger,” wrote Kirill Kabatski, one of the activists who traveled with the project throughout Germany and Poland. “Consequently, we want to conduct an educational seminar on the topic ‘Israel-Ambassador.’ The main aim of the seminar is to prepare Jewish students to be ambassadors of Israel, as other people perceive us to be.”

Distributed at the Russian Speaking Jewry Committee meeting, Jewish Agency Board of Governors, February 26, 21012; courtesy.