By Liam Hoare
On college campuses and in universities across Europe, students’ unions are at the heart of Jewish life.
Founded in 1978, the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) bills itself as a “pluralistic, inclusive, and non-partisan umbrella organization” for the continent’s Jewish students’ unions. Headquartered in Brussels, its self-defined mission is to “strengthen Jewish communities and European society through Jewish student activism and advocacy.” As such, “EUJS connects peer-led, independent Jewish student unions throughout Europe and supports them in fulfilling the aspirations of the Jewish people; developing Jewish religious, spiritual, cultural and social heritage, and ensuring continuity.”
I caught up with the EUJS’ current President, Benny Fischer, over the phone last week from their Brussels office after his morning meetings with European Union officials. Part of the brief of the EUJS involves political advocacy at the European level. In recent months, the EUJS has spoken out in favor of protecting the Schengen principles of free movement within Europe, against the participation of the far right in political events, and has worked with European officials towards re-establishing a working definition of anti-Semitism. The EUJS also co-sponsored a Jewish call to action in response to the ongoing refugee crisis.
Fischer, born and raised in Germany in what he described as a “traditional Orthodox home,” has been President of the EUJS since September of last year. His formative years saw him move between Hamburg, Köln, and Berlin, but it was only in the latter where he attended a Jewish elementary and high school that Fischer says he became more integrated into the Jewish community itself. “I had never been in the Jewish bubble – and had never wanted to,” but in Berlin he joined a youth movement, became a madrich and later an educator of other madrichim.
Fischer went to college at the Universität Hamburg. During his studies, he started and ran for two years a grassroots initiative giving tours of the city’s synagogues, for example for groups of high school teachers, which covered not just the workings of the building but Jewish identity as a whole. “There are 120-220,000 Jews in Germany, which is about 0.01 percent of the population. For most people, they have a small chance of meeting a Jew. Their first encounter is usually in history class or in the news about the Middle East. For most of them, I was the first Jew they ever encountered. It helped break stereotypes,” Fischer said.
Fischer links his work today with the EUJS to this synagogue initiative, and also the scholarship he received from the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk (ELES), an instrument that allowed him to strengthen his Jewish identity through contact and intellectual exchange with Jews from non-Orthodox denominations. “The reason I have been successful in Jewish jobs is that I’m good at speaking to non-Jews,” he said, talking about his synagogue initiative as well as his political advocacy with the EUJS. In terms of the empowerment of Jewish students, “they can learn more and gain more if they can involve non-Jews” in some way shape or form, Fischer believes.
An example of this that the EUJS has been working on for a year is “A Europe of Diasporas.” The project brings together Europe’s minority communities – Jews, Sinti and Roma, Assyrians, Armenians – in a series of seminars for young activists: the first on the notion of identity; the second on prejudice, denialism, and discrimination; the third on education and empowerment. The aim is to establish a network of European Diasporas, “working together across cultural groups to help develop, affirm and popularize the notion of European Diasporas.”
One of the questions Fischer is focused on is that of third generation European Jewish identity. Jewish identity in Europe more generally, as Fischer sees it, is grounded in Holocaust remembrance and pro-Israel sentiment – both of which are of the utmost importance and need to be preserved. But, those elements also need to be built on, Fischer says, to create a Jewish identity that is “open and inviting” and “not just reactive but proactive. There must be something positive about Jewish identity,” he stressed.
Third generation European Jewish identity must be “positive to its core. This does not mean ignoring external threats,” whether that be BDS advocacy on college campuses or security for Jewish events. The key is balancing openness and security, Fischer told me. “We are Generation Y and Generation Why? We are the generation that asks questions, and a strong Jewish identity should come out of this process of asking questions. Sitting in a room and having discussion matters, because actually discussing and questioning Jewish identity will make us stronger.” Encouraging Jewish pluralism, not uniformity, is key to this.
For European Jewish students, what Fischer termed “true Jewish content” will help enable discussion and an exploration of third generation Jewish identity. “One of the main tools to get to a strong Jewish identity is to stop selling cheap Jewish content – trying to sell Judaism as cheaply as possible to make it accessible. The smaller you make Jewish content” within Jewish events “the less people will be interested in it. You have to sell big questions. If you make a Jewish event and put in Jewish content, then put it in in a correct way,” he said.
Fischer also told me European Jewish communities must focus more on programming and investment for those aged 18 to 35 – not only students but also all young adults. “Communities stop investing in members aged 18 to 35,” he said. “They do not see the urgency in investing in this particular group of people and it’s reflected in the inclusion of young people in community politics and work” which he described as ‘shocking.’ Young adults are “the exact age group where you have to invest,” for it is out of this cohort that the next generation of community leaders will emerge.
In fact, young leadership has blossomed in some communities, mostly in eastern Europe in cities like Warsaw and Sofia, but Fischer is working to strengthen Jewish students’ unions as a compensation for the lack of funding for student initiatives in European Jewish communities more broadly. In a message after our interview, Fischer emphasized that stronger unions will result in more resilient communities, which in turn will lead to the growth of a stronger sense of Jewish identity among young people.