JPropel and Renewing the Jewish Communities of Europe

Over the past two weeks, Schusterman’s @Roicommunity, Paideia and the Pears Foundation’s JHub have run a series of activities in the classic Swedish university town of Uppsala under the banner of the Summer of Change. @aharonhorwitz and I were privileged to represent PresenTense there as ‘staff,’ Aharon as part of the incubator, and both of us together at JPropel teaching a few workshops over the course of a few days, from our PTSchool series, and leading a text-based learning on business model development for social enterprise.

It was a fun affair. For a little under a week, approximately 50 individuals, the majority from the various countries of Europe, hung out, ate, drank and took boat rides whose main outcome was the bonding of young activist Jews across the world, and an understanding that deep skillbuilding is out there thanks to short ‘taste of’ sessions held in the afternoons. Although it was their first year involved as a lead partner (as far as I understand), Schusterman’s ROI spirit was strongly felt: there are few organizations I know of who muster the resources to help generally-bootstrapped Jewish social entrepreneurs feel invested in as individuals. They sure know how to throw parties. We had a bar night the first night, a boat ride down the river to a palace the second, and a club night on the third of four nights (one of the four nights was shabbat). Even I, in my old age, had fun.

But what I left with is a hunger for a positive vision for Jewish life across the world, one that I do not think exists currently. My fear is that Jewish investment in building communal capacity in Europe has been either a reaction to the Holocaust, or a desire to ‘scale’ the innovation happening in the United States of America or Israel to the Old World. What has resulted is a bifurcated community in Europe, where the Old Guard is given the keys to the Jewish communal pot, and incentive to keep control close to their chest. In the other corner the New Guard is learning from their generation around the world and trying to start new ventures, but with external funding and therefore without the buy in of their institutions or their key community members.

One example is the story I heard about the Polish community of Krakow, where the wonderful work done by Beit Krakow has been stiffed by the local Orthodox community. Although the Orthodox community (numbering about 70 men from what I understand) has ownership over the seven local synagogues left over from old Krakow’s thriving community, they have preferred to sell the buildings than give them over to the progressive, young Beit Krakow crowd who would use the centers as a ‘Hillel House’ of sorts for students in Krakow University. It’s a sad state of affairs when Jews would rather lose their heritage than have another approach to Jewish life thrive.

Generational divides have always existed, so the cynical might say that the conflict that exists in Krakow (and in other communities in a similar position) is to be expected, but there is something different in the challenge Jewish Europe is facing: without a vision for how Europe can once again have thriving Jewish communities, neither side will be willing to make the hard compromises needed to build the infrastructure for renewal. Individuals can disagree on how to interpret a vision but share the same vision, and as the Zionist movement taught us, they can still build a thriving State despite their disagreements. But in Europe there seems to be a vacuum of vision that is leading to a ‘winner take all’ mentality of power politics, which will deny victory to anyone, let alone the Jewish People.

I must admit that at first I didn’t care that much; while Jewish communities have risen and fallen throughout history, the Jewish People has survived. But my wife made a strong point: our greatest successes as a People have come through diversity, through our ability to internalize multiple approaches and borrow from many styles of thinking and action in order to overcome the formidable obstacles in our path. It’s thanks to this expanded view of the world that we thrived even as we fought to survive. Losing a European presence will cut off a critical point of view in this next century. Building a strong European Jewish community will mean increasing the opportunities the Jewish People have to fulfill our mission of fixing the world.

Thanks to ROI, JHub and Paideia, I feel I have a much better understanding of this challenge – but one that has a long way to go before I could imagine a solution. Due to this conference, and the community dynamics I learned exist in most European cities, I have grown more concerned than ever about the future of European Jews. Because I have yet to hear an approach, or see a venture, that can fix the ‘us versus them’ dynamic. I’d like to think that the PresenTense Community Entrepreneur Partnership, with its emphasis on building a volunteer community locally and only then supporting community entrepreneurs, could help this scenario. But I have little data to indicate there are enough professionals locally in the cities that are most in need to fill the Steering Committee or Mentor Community ranks. But that said, I have a lot to learn, and I know other organizational efforts (such as the European Union of Jewish Students) do exist and might have a venture that will transform this part of the world for the better.

What I am sure of is that for the Jewish People to thrive in the 21st Century, a strong, innovative and responsive European Jewish community must thrive. I believe these communities need to be built from the bottom up, and cannot be built on a base of foreign funding. International conferences and Jewish studies seminars are a good start but they are not enough, as turned on young Jews returning to innovation-blocking communities will opt to emigrate to greener pastures in the USA and Israel, further rotting European Jewry. Those of us non-European activists and professionals should focus on building the resource-gathering capacity in communities where there are weak federated giving systems, and convincing local strongholds that they need invest in their next generation if European Jewry is to survive into the 22nd century. I very much hope Schusterman’s ROI, Pears’ JHub and Paideia will continue opening the eyes of organizational professionals to these challenges, and that through such encounters a new vision for Jewish life in Europe will emerge.

Ariel Beery is the co-founder and director of the PresenTense Group.