Energy and Possibility: Empowering the Future of Jewish Life in Europe

by Seth Cohen and Shoshana Boyd Gelfand

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. …. get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.
Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.
Abraham Joshua Heschel

On a recent Shabbat evening in Uppsala, Sweden, a group of over fifty Jewish young adults from across Europe gathered together to welcome Shabbat. A discussion ensued in the spirit of Heschel’s conception of radial amazement and how it might apply to them individually or as a group. As the discussion circled the room, one particular Romanian woman who had been quiet during much of the past two days spoke up. She looked around the room, at the faces of young, laughing and dreaming Jewish Europeans from London to Krakow to Istanbul (and every point in between), and then she smiled. “This” she said, “is amazing. There is energy in this room; there is possibility.”

She couldn’t have been more correct, nor could she have captured this moment of time in European Jewish life any more beautifully.

The young adults gathered in the room in Sweden wore participating in a series of programs – the Paideia Project Incubator, the JPropel conference (a joint program of ROI Community, JHub and Paideia), and the Paideia Decennial Conference, collectively referred to as the Summer of Change. The purpose of the program was not only to gather some of the most energetic Jewish innovators from across Europe, but to give them the information and inspiration to creatively engage members of the European and global Jewish community. Through one-on-one training, group worships and opportunities to share open space discussions, these young adults were empowered to be more than just individuals with ideas, but to see themselves as a network of leaders that can (and will) change the face of Jewish Europe.

The truth is, however, the face of European Jewry has already been going through an inspiring form of change. A recent study by Jumpstart confirms what may of us anecdotally believe, that Europe is not only a place where young adults are reclaiming their Jewish identity, but is also a place where innovation in Jewish life is occurring at a breathtaking pace. Jumpstart’s study finds that there are over 128 European Jewish startups across 27 countries, with over 63 being started in the last four years. Equally as interesting, the study finds that the founders of these start-ups come from an impressive educational background, with over 75% having masters degrees and 31% having a formal advanced degree or certification in a Jewish related field.

The startups include some amazing ideas that link Jewish inspiration with Jewish engagement. Examples come from a variety of fields, including:

  • Arts and Culture – A collaborative project between a cantor and a producer who are reviving cabaret as a Jewish method of social commentary and satire;
  • Social action – An initiative in Germany to duplicate Britain’s Big Green Jewish Website and promote environmental activism in the local Jewish community;
  • Social services – An international internship program to place unemployed young Jews in professional positions, while also requiring them to volunteer in the community in which they are placed;
  • Social enterprise – A social enterprise to build an international graphic design website that connects Jewish organizations with designers who can provide templates for their program public relations;
  • Media – a platform for communicating user-generated print and video content specifically related to news about Jewish life and opportunities in Eastern Europe;
  • Interfaith – An annual European Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, created by a young Austrian Jewish activist and his Muslim co-chair, who bring together young people across Europe (including Turkey) who want to create grassroots projects around this interfaith agenda

These projects – and many more like them – demonstrate the vibrancy of young European Jews. While Americans and Israelis often view Europe as the place of Jewish history, this gathering demonstrated that Europe also has a contribution to make to a global Jewish future.

Yes, there is no lack of history related to European Jewish life, much of it is inspiring and it is also unimaginably tragic. Certainly we can never forget that history. But neither should we let it cloud our vision of the future. The renewal of Jewish life in Europe, no matter how difficult it may appear, is not merely an indulgence in collective reclamation of our past. It is a fundamental asset for our future. Wherever Jews are they create possibilities, and those possibilities can help change the world – Jewish and otherwise. The Jews of Europe, with their rich history and diverse cultures, have a unique contribution to make to the global Jewish conversation.

In these days where so much of the conversation about Jewish life centers on survival, we should all take notice of the community who survived the Holocaust and is now creating a rebirth of European innovation. They are feeling a sense of radical amazement and not letting history get in the way of their future. Let’s follow their lead.

Seth Cohen is the Director of Network Development for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the Director of JHub in London, an initiative of the Pears Foundation.