Diaspora Affairs

Israel turmoil, Russian invasion loom large at Summit of European Jewish Leaders

Over 400 Jewish professionals from across Europe, the US and Israel gather in Berlin for the first time in 5 years

BERLIN – The room erupted in applause when it was announced that Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli would not be attending the Summit of European Jewish Leaders on Sunday night.

The summit, which opened earlier that day, was hosted jointly by the European Council of Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It was the first in-person gathering for the summit since 2018, and with 410 attendees it was also the largest.

While both host organizations are avowedly non-political, as is the summit itself, recent events in Israel were present in many hallway conversations.

Though Chikli’s office blamed his lack of attendance on a delayed flight — indeed he landed two hours later than scheduled — some at the conference were incredulous. Dozens of protesters demonstrated outside the hotel, fliers were placed on every table calling him “dishonorable,” and a “slap in the face of hundreds of thousands of Israelis defending Israeli democracy,” and there was a general atmosphere at the event of opposition to the current Israeli government and its proposed judicial overhaul, with some attendees openly planning to walk out when Chikli was scheduled to address the group. Some of the participants, however, criticized the cheers for Chikli’s cancellation on the grounds that the summit should be a place of unity and not division.

Participants hailed from across Europe, with a small number of attendees from Israel and a handful from the United States. There was a noticeable presence of individuals from Ukraine and even a delegation from the JCC in Minsk. Representatives from Russian organizations were also in attendance, though it was not clear if they currently lived in the country.

The overall goal of the summit is to help European communities prepare for the future. Attendees are a mix of organization professionals and lay leaders, the only pan-European conference with such a model. Like at all recent gatherings across the Jewish world, there was great happiness expressed by all at once again getting together in person.

As five years have passed since the previous summit in Prague, a large number of the organizations present have undergone a generational change of leadership.

Like all Jewish organizations around the world, the pandemic had a tremendous impact on European Jewish communal groups, their programming and their financial health. And that was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, which forced communities to pivot quickly to assist the influx of refugees with, in most cases, staff who were not trained for their new tasks. While the conference program includes all the topics one would expect in a 21st-century gathering of Jewish leaders – antisemitism, community security, humanitarian needs, fundraising and Jewish education, to name a few – the realities of the Russian-Ukrainian war were ever-present.

In her welcoming address, Ursula Von Leyden, a German politician who serves as the president of the European Commission, recognized – as did many others – that it was the Jewish communities who were on the front line as refugees, of all religions, flooded into multiple Western European countries.

While not the formal theme of the summit, Alex Budnitskiy, executive director and CEO, of the Marks JCH of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, summed the day up best when, referring to the work with Ukrainian refugees, he told eJP, “We are doing this because we are Jewish, not because they are.”