In Eastern Europe, A New Generation of Jewish Leaders

Shabbat dinner at Moishe House Sofia; courtesy Moishe House.
Shabbat dinner at Moishe House Sofia; courtesy Moishe House.

by Liam Hoare

Sitting in her office in a rather grim-faced building attached to the handsome Nozyk Synagogue, I asked the new President of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, Anna Chipczynska, what it was that she campaigned on in order to win the election. “To what extent did I really have to campaign?” she ventured.

One only has to look at the gender and age composition of the recently-elected board of the community. “Three out of seven people are 35 years or younger, four out of seven are women, so I think it’s an interesting signal. The other interesting signal is that I am not Orthodox – I practice Reform, so it’s something new for the community.” She added, “the fact that I was elected maybe also has to do with a feeling that people simply wanted to see the younger generation come to power.”

Eastern European Jewry is defined generationally in a way that cannot be said of their western European counterparts, simply because of the experience of communism. It varies country to country, but in general it can be said that the so-called ‘middle generation’ who came of consciousness between 1945 and 1989 and did not experience the vibrancy of Jewish life prior to the Holocaust have weak or underdeveloped Jewish identities.

While the institutions and bonds of the Jewish community were reconstructed after the Second World War, Jewish identity became unmoored, detached from tradition and knowledge. Sameness triumphed over difference, collectivism at the expense of individualism. In Poland in particular, there was also the trauma not only of the Holocaust but also the state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns of 1968, both of which informed a certain view that assimilation was preferable to identification.

Today, there is a sea-change in eastern Europe, and the young generation that is the mirror image of the middle generation is taking positions of authority and seeking to affect change in their communities. This young generation – more active, confident, and interconnected – is shaped on the one hand by the freedoms communism bequeathed upon its passing and on the other by a revival of Judaism in all its facets which began to gain ground during the 1990s.

Chipczynska learned about her Jewish identity when she was eighteen. “My mum is from the generation of 1968 and has a very specific idea of what it means to be Jewish and what kinds of complications it has on your life,” she said. “We are very often telling our parents what it is and means to be Jewish rather than the other way around. We are lucky enough to live in peace, prosperity, and freedom – our parents didn’t have this luck, so we are bringing to them many new forms of being Jewish.”

“People under 35 are now the core of the Jewish community” in Bulgaria, Alek Oscar, who has been President of the Jewish Community of Sofia since 2007, told me. With reference to the generational divide, he added, “Young people want to change the world and make it a better place. Older people want to keep the world the same. There is a gap because the middle generation that was born under communism never had the opportunities that we have today to be part of a Jewish community. They never managed to develop their Jewish identities in the ways that we have.”

So what is it the young generation would wish to change? In Warsaw, Chipczynska said she campaigned for “a much more open and welcoming community.” Looking back at the election, “I think people wanted more transparency but also a little bit more involvement, more democracy – a place for themselves within the Jewish community. They needed it and wanted it and it’s extremely important for the Jewish community of Warsaw because it’s not just one synagogue, we have a lot set of activities and responsibilities.”

The community in Warsaw has around 700 members, but there are also over 2,000 more people who would qualify as Jewish in order to be a member of the community but presently are not. “Based upon what people have told us, they would like the community much more welcoming, the atmosphere nicer, the programming more interesting to them. We are working with community members to see what improvements they need, what activities they need, how they wish to get involved,” Chipczynska concluded.

Oscar has also been keen to alter the relationship between the community and its members over time. “The challenge is to have each person understand that this is our community and each person has their share and their responsibility,” he told me. “We shouldn’t just wait to see what we can get from the community – first, we should think about what it is that we can do for the community.”

Oscar has worked over the past several years conscientiously to make sure young people have ways to be engaged with the community, particularly in programmes that also help Bulgarian society at-large. Over the past two years, for example, more than 5,000 underprivileged children without access to decent medical care have had their eyes examined because of Jewish community outreach, and more than 500 pairs of glasses have been donated.

“The intent is to help the needy here in Bulgaria but also to empower the young people in the community and help them to be active,” Oscar said. “It’s not enough just to organise the classical Jewish life with education and activities and classes because young people want to be Jewish outside of the borders of the JCC and we have to teach them Jewish values, how to make the world a better place.”

Chipczynska and Oscar – representatives of the young generation – are leaders at the local level. In Bulgaria, however, the middle generation which presently controls the national institutions is ready to set in motion a transition of power, one which would likely see Oscar assume the presidency of the entire community, and the current leadership stay in the background to assist and advise.

“It is a change that should have happened already,” Maxim Benvenisti, President of the Organisation of the Jews in Bulgaria “Shalom”, told me. “We need to have young people in the leadership in order to pull the community forward and we need to act now to change the leadership before we are pushed into the making the change. What we have now is a generation of leaders we can trust and we are ready to help.”

I asked Benvenisti what he sees as the distinction between his and Oscar’s generations. “We’re different types of Jews. Our generation tried to preserve their Judaism not through tradition or religion but through being connected to the remnants of the old Jewish community that survived the war. The interconnectedness was very important in the time of communism because it was a way for the community to stay together.”

The Judaism of the young generation in eastern Europe is little different from the Judaism of western Europe, a traditional identification grounded in culture and tradition, Benvenisti believes. He also observes that, as the general society in Bulgaria has frayed and fallen apart since 1989, the Jewish community has become more enclosed and perhaps less open to people on the outside. “Our generation had a weak Jewish community in a strong society – this generation has a strong Jewish community in a weak society.”

On the subject of the transition, Oscar said, “We have to take this chance.” Maybe it would’ve been better to allow another ten or twenty years to pass, “but the reality is if we don’t do it today, maybe there won’t be anything [to pass on] in twenty years. It’s now or never, so we have to grasp this opportunity and try and make the Jewish community better and help the Jewish community help Bulgarian society. We don’t have time to wait – we just have to jump.”