European Jewish Resurgence Continues to Surprise

Gary Rosenblatt writing in The New York Jewish Week:

Jewish Renaissance In Europe Presents A Surprising Challenge

… Such positive news presents a challenge to those of us (and I include myself, until recently) who essentially had written off European Jewry.

We tend to think of that population as having a tragic past culminating in the Holocaust; an embattled present, with anti-Semitism fueled by Arab Muslims a reality; and the bleakest of futures, given an aging demographic threatened by intermarriage and assimilation.

That’s basically how I saw it until I participated in two eye-opening experiences in Europe in the last six months. The first was a weeklong workshop in Stockholm in August sponsored by Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. There I met more than two dozen men and women in their 20s and 30s who were actively involved, with the help of Paideia, in pursuing their own Jewish roots and seeking to create or sustain educational or cultural projects in their own European communities.

And last month’s LimmudUK conference, attracting more than 2,000 people, mostly from England, impressed me with a level of volunteerism and commitment to Jewish learning and culture I had never seen before.

… The re-emergence of Jewish life among young Europeans should motivate American Jewish leaders to rethink the diaspora-Israel equation, which they tend to see as confined to North America and the Jewish state.

“We need a better global awareness,” said Jumptstart’s Landres, “and a sense of what European Jewish life has to offer.” Beyond the U.S. and Israel, he added, “Europe is the first and strongest case for a full-color Jewish world.

Landres, who is based in Los Angeles but spent several years living in England and Slovakia, noted that Europe “complicates” our picture of Jewish peoplehood, which is framed around America and Israel.

Less centered around synagogues and religious practice, European Jewish life focuses more on arts, culture, history and heritage. And with high assimilation rates, many of the new start-ups deal with intermarriage by, in a sense, ignoring it. Their programs tend to be open to everyone.

Barbara Spectre, the American-born director of Paideia, refers to what is happening in Europe as “the dis-assimilation” of Jewish life, with even young people who are intermarried or not considered Jewish by halachic standards asserting their identity and exploring Jewish roots and culture. She calls for a change in “rhetoric and attitude” among Israeli and American Jewish leaders who refuse to “hear good news” about what she sees as “a great transformation taking place.”

At a time of increasing globalization and a decreasing Jewish diaspora population, it will be interesting to see if the many start-ups around the world connect, and if Israeli and American Jewish organizations and philanthropists extend their reach to European innovators.

There is no doubt that there is much they could learn from each other.

We encourage you to read Rosenblatt’s entire article, Jewish Renaissance In Europe Presents A Surprising Challenge and check our post, Start-Up Continent: European Jewish Innovation.