Counting on the Jews in Europe

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 7 – Reinvigorating Jewish Peoplehood: The Philanthropic Perspective; published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

by Sally Berkovic

I like to play the numbers game. ‘How many Jews do you think there are in Germany, Hungary and Poland?’ I asked a group of Israeli colleagues. After a few minutes of guessing, mostly the wrong numbers, one of them observed wryly, ’The last time I did this was 30 years ago in high school when the teacher asked me ‘How many Jews died in Germany, Hungary and Poland?’ There is a smirk of recognition around the room. ‘The Poles love us now,’ chimed in another, ‘all these kids throwing their dollars at the Polish tourist industry so they can visit the concentration camps and go grave-hopping.’ It was a provocative statement, but one that symbolises many of the profound and troubling issues about the relationship between European Jewry and our extended family in Israel, America and the rest of the Diaspora.

The fall of Communism in 1989 ushered in a new era of Jewish possibilities in Eastern and Central Europe. Generous philanthropists and community activists rushed in to assist these struggling communities, offering funds, education, help in building a communal infrastructure, religious instruction and the capacity to leave for Israel or the USA. The Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe was established in 2000 to assist European Jewish communities and since then, the Foundation has supported a range of initiatives that have helped thousands of Jews to discover and reclaim their long-buried Jewish roots and declare their Jewish identity. Our Museums and Archives programmes have enabled the preservation and dissemination of information about the historic Jewish presence in the area, including in areas where there are no Jews left. If Jewish Peoplehood is, at its most basic, connecting Jews with each other and increasing the sense of mutual obligation towards each other, then I’d argue that European Jewry has been doing this for a while, attempting to create bridges between East and West, and developing pan-European fora to stimulate discussion and share expertise between countries where possible. European Jewry has a lot to offer the global Jewish conversation, as we are constantly engaged in issues of diversity, identity, memory, collective responsibility, pluralism, spirituality, and every other ‘ism’ possible.

However, Europe is not one country. Sofia, Krakow, Barcelona, Paris, Budapest, Rome, Moscow … each community with its distinctive character and challenges must be understood on its own terms. It is precisely these differences that offer on-going opportunities for policy makers, philanthropists and communal professionals to generate a stimulating debate and tailor programmes that reflect the different needs in each community. Nevertheless, and despite these differences, there are some common themes emerging which need to be taken into consideration in any discussion of Jewish peoplehood and potential intervention strategies.

Firstly, young Jews are on the move across Europe. I have met young Jewish professionals from Russia, France and Poland in London, and I know of Londoners who have moved to Budapest, and Hungarians now living in Germany. Career prospects will take them to another community, romance may encourage them to stay. Many will eventually return home but some will move to America or Israel. To what extent do they see themselves as part of a global Jewish movement of relocation and transition? How much of their history do they take with them and how much do they seek to integrate as quickly as possible into their new home, removing traces of their unique European story?

Secondly, older Jews are not going anywhere. In Eastern Europe in particular, there are still Holocaust survivors living in poor conditions and being supported by organisations such as the Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) and World Jewish Relief. In Western Europe, there is an ageing Jewish population and the only significant Jewish birth rate is amongst the Orthodox community, in particular the Haredi groups where 8 – 10 children per family is not unusual. The problem of aged care in Jewish communities is a global one, yet the rising costs of residential care will cripple European communities with limited resources to support the elderly.

Thirdly, English is generally the lingua franca between European Jews. Pan-European conferences are usually in English and most of the pan-European correspondence is in English. While there are some excellent shlichim sent by the Jewish Agency, in general, Hebrew language teaching is very poor. As English increasingly becomes the default language of the Jewish people, what does this mean for Hebrew, the language of Tanach, the language of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel? How can we talk of Jewish Peoplehood in any other language than Hebrew?

Fourthly, there are many Jewish identities in Europe shaped by a variety of factors. For example, in a recent study by the JDC-International Centre for Community Development, 1,270 Jews in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Poland and Romania were interviewed. The report says that ‘Birth, culture, family, and values were consistently identified as the primary sources of Jewish identity … Israel’s role as an identity factor is significant for more than half of respondents in each country with the exception of Hungary. Anti-Semitism, meanwhile, plays a relatively minor role in the formation of Jewish identity throughout the sampled countries … in each country factors connected with historical memory and the feeling of being part of the Jewish people are dominant; the religious tradition, participation in organised Jewish life, and the relationship with Israel are relatively less important … In terms of what people think about mixed marriages, the same picture develops in all of the examined countries: an increase in the number of mixed marriages is not supported anywhere, though mixed marriages are not specifically opposed. With the exception of Romania, a large proportion of respondents in all sampled countries (48%–55%) think that mixed marriages do not threaten the continued existence of the Jewish people.’ What does intermarriage in Europe mean for Jewish peoplehood?

Finally, Jewish literacy is variable across Europe. If there were such a thing as a Jewish Peoplehood index, I would argue that the small number of religious communities would have a much higher score. Many religious communities, particularly in central and Eastern Europe, have been ‘adopted’ by sister communities in America who regularly send teachers and funds to support these communities. Religious magazines such as Mishpacha and Hamodia feature the ‘rebirth’ of religious communities in the Former Soviet Union and write about the mesirus nefesh (self sacrifice) of the leaders of these communities who could have left for the USA or Israel but chose to remain and lead a revival of Jewish religious life. The Lauder Foundation has made a significant contribution to building and supporting Jewish schools and there are a range of independent adult education programmes scattered across Europe. Surely, Jewish peoplehood has to build on the foundations of Jewish literacy – from many different religious perspectives – for without understanding basic concepts of the Jewish lifecycle, the Jewish calendar, Jewish history and Jewish texts, it’s hard to make a rational case for feeling connected in a meaningful way to the Jewish people.

As the Jewish Peoplehood discussions evolve, do not count the number of Jews in Europe – rather, count on Jews in Europe to be a significant partner, bringing a wealth of experience, resilience and passion to the family table.

Sally Berkovic is the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe.