By Toby Axelrod
[Today in Europe, a wide range of creative and committed individuals are contributing to active and engaging Jewish life. Their stories are often untold and offer lessons for innovation in Jewish life, the abiding strength of Jewish identity and involvement in the face of challenges such as disengagement from the community, inclusion and anti-Semitism, and the fact that such challenges do not define or limit the ambitions of Jewish communities. In a new weekly series, eJewish Philanthropy will profile 10 Jewish community professionals who are building the future of European Jewish life. The series, written by journalist Toby Axelrod, is sponsored by Yesod, an initiative founded in 2016 that focuses on developing, connecting and supporting Jewish community professionals in Europe. Yesod founding partners are JDC, the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. More information at www.yesodeurope.eu.]
Dalia Grinfeld wants to bring the “real Jewish Europe” into the hearts and minds of Jews everywhere.
Newly appointed as Anti-Defamation League’s Berlin-based Assistant Director for European Affairs, Grinfeld is down to earth, effusive, optimistic and realistic. Co-founder and past president of the Jewish Student Union of Germany (JSUD), she has traveled a long way since her university days. But she’s the same Jewish activist at heart.
Like many of Germany’s Jews, Grinfeld has roots outside the country: Her mother is from Latvia, her father from Argentina. The two met in Herzliya, Israel and eventually chose Stuttgart, where Grinfeld was born in 1994.
The family was part of the 1990s boom: Primarily due to the influx of former Soviet Jews, Germany’s Jewish population rose from about 25,000 to nearly 240,000 at its peak. About half are affiliated with Jewish communities today.
As a teenager, Grinfeld got her activist feet wet at Berlin’s Jewish high school on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, where she introduced Germany’s “Schools without Racism, Schools with Courage” program. Today she realizes “how well that prepared me for getting involved in the Jewish community.” In 2012 she entered Heidelberg University, where she focused on “the two driving forces in my life: politics and Jewish activism.”
But something was missing: “By the time of Chanukah in my first year, I realized I had no Jewish friends. What I did then was not smart,” she jokes: She planned a Chanukah party in her college dormitory, and announced it in local Facebook groups. “Over 60 people showed up. Some even drove an hour from Frankfurt.”
That confirmed her sense that there was an unmet need. And she was there to fill it: Grinfeld became the leader of the local Jewish student union – Bund Juedische Studenten Baden, and in 2016, she and four others co-founded the Jewish Student Union Germany (JSUD, or Jüdische Studierendenunion Deutschland), which replaced the Federal Association of Jewish Students in Germany (Bundesverband Jüdischer Studierender in Deutschland e.V.).
“Our idea was to empower young Jews to be both politically active and Jewishly active,” says Grinfeld, who was elected president of JSUD. “We started a movement, not just an organization.”
Today, the group has 25,000 members and five additional Jewish student unions under its umbrella.
While heading JSUD, Grinfeld also held a full-time job in political policy. The two tasks “took a lot of energy and I loved it, but it never stops.”
That’s where Yesod came in. Through the organization, Grinfeld also met Jewish professionals with a passion for their careers. It opened her eyes to the possibilities for combining her love of politics and Jewish causes.
In 2018, Grinfeld – by then an experienced public speaker – was invited to represent JSUD at ADL’s “Never Is Now” summit on anti-Semitism and hate. A year later, Grinfeld – who used to think “Jewish stuff is for volunteering”- was hired as a member of ADL’s European staff.
“I always thought it was important for us as Jews to think about others, which is why I love the mission of ADL: ‘to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.’”
Grinfeld is optimistic. But there are quite a few challenges to be met:
Today’s Jewish communities need to empower the younger generation. “Don’t make a Purim party for them! Let them do it, and they will make an activism seminar out of it.”
Secondly, Jewish life in Europe needs to be “normalized”: Grinfeld wants the public “to understand that we don’t have horns, but that we do have specific needs.”
Finally, society must confront the reality of anti-Semitism. But at the same time, anti-Semitism “is not our life.”
The “real Jewish Europe” is “a thriving community of engagement, of empowerment,” says Grinfeld. “And I want to bring that into people’s hearts and minds.”