In an Uncertain Europe, Jewish Leaders’ Survey Reveals Much

by Marcelo Dimentstein

In the wake of groundbreaking elections in France and Greece, with the specter of social unrest and increasing economic decline, the top concerns facing a variety of European Jewish community leaders might seem inconsequential. However, in the Second Survey of European Jewish Leaders and Opinion Formers, a project of the JDC International Center for Community Development, economic strife, the rise of right-wing parties, and the demographic decline/assimilation of their co-religionists were cited among those concerns facing these Jewish leaders as of the end of 2011.

Performed every three years, the survey was conducted between June and October 2011 by a research team under Dr. Barry A. Kosmin from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. The survey reflects the sensibilities and expectations of Jewish leaders at that time and may indicate how these points of view will impact community planning and the future of European Jewish communities. Such data is more important than ever given the serious socio-economic challenges that European Jews, like their neighbors, face today.

There is no doubt that the last three years have seen profound changes in Europe. As the economic crisis plagued countries like Spain and Ireland, spread to the Baltics, Greece, and now Bulgaria, Jews were impacted. Additionally, the rise of right-wing political parties such as Golden Dawn and the National Front, as well as the tragic murders in Toulouse, made it clear that Jews can feel these challenges perhaps more than others.

That’s why this 191-item survey, conducted in English, French, Spanish, German and Russian in 32 countries, is so telling. Answers were culled from 328 Jewish community leaders, including organizational executives, current and former board directors of communities, Rabbis from all denominations, school principals and educators, media editors and publishers, academics, intellectuals and recognized opinion formers.

In the area of threats to Jewish life in Europe, 46% of respondents widely considered the rise of right wing nationalist parties to be the biggest outside threat to European Jewish communities. When asked about the top challenges facing Jewish life in Europe, the majority of respondents cited “alienation of Jews from community life (67%) and “demographic decline” (59%).

And when asked about the top priorities for European Jewish communities in the future, respondents rated inclusion of young leadership in decision making bodies; the strengthening of Jewish education; and supporting needy Jews in the community among the top three. The focus on the needy reflects overall feelings on financial challenges facing the community with 41% of respondents describing their community as suffering under greater financial strain (as opposed to 28% in 2008).

In terms of their ties to Israel, respondents see their relationship with the Jewish State as an asset of great importance to European Jewish communities. In this context, 85% also agreed that “communities should provide opportunities for members to share different opinions and points of view on Israel and its policies.”

From all 13 topic areas in the survey – including Anti-Semitism/Security, Status Issues & Intermarriage, Israel, Denominational Tensions, and Decision making and Accountability – we can see a European Jewish community leadership that in 2011 was very aware of the challenges it faced. As a new dawn has set on the European continent, such awareness is important, but the subsequent planning for the future is paramount.

Marcelo Dimentstein, an anthropologist, is Operations Director for JDC-ICCD.