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, we 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.]
At the turn of this century, visual artist Tina Schwarz turned a corner in her own professional life.
After working for years in the arts, both in the academic and corporate worlds, she became fascinated with new technology.
Today, she is putting her skills to use as Executive Director of Denmark’s Jewish community. Her biggest hope: that the community likewise can grow and adjust to the challenges of a fast-paced world. “A mindset change is needed,” she says.
Schwarz was born in 1961 in Copenhagen, to a family with roots in Eastern Europe: “They were part of the great immigration at the end of 19th century, and they all thought they were going to the United States but they got stuck here or there,” she says. “And it was good, so they stayed.”
Hers was a traditional – though not very religious – family, keeping kosher and enjoying Sabbath meals, while embracing modern values. Schwarz attended Jewish elementary schools and a public high school.
After studying art history and fine art in the UK for several years, she returned to her birthplace, where she married and started a family, while working as an artist and educator.
In the late 1990s, with an artist’s open eyes and a flexible spirit, she leapt into the world of information technology. “The internet was happening, in the art world and all around. I felt, ‘Oh my God, I need to learn this now.”
“The world was breaking in two, in a way: There was a real divide between the analog and the digital. It was mysterious; no one knew where it was going. … I learned a lot. And it brought me to my next step in my professional life, as well.”
While earning a master’s degree from the IT University of Copenhagen in digital design and communication, Schwarz entered the world of digital marketing. She worked for a pharmaceutical company and then for the Flying Tiger global brand, founded by childhood friend Lennart Lajboschitz, who always insisted “that humanistic values are possible in organizations and businesses.”
Over 12 years there, Schwarz moved up to the position of marketing and brand director. Then, in 2018, after a brief stint as a client relations consultant for a small communications agency, Schwarz was hired by Denmark’s Jewish community as executive director.
In all, there are fewer than 7,000 Jews in Denmark; about 1,700 live in Copenhagen, slightly fewer than when Schwarz was growing up. Day to day, she works with fellow staff, as well as with local clergy and community members of all ages.
“I am much more connected to religious people than I used to be,” she says. “We have a very young rabbi – Jair Melchior – who is very open for all sorts of discussions and who understands very well the different aspects of Jewish life here.”
Schwarz’ responsibilities cover administration, communication, politics and culture: “Everything from abstract issues on one hand to very nitty gritty daily operational things, like the cost of a funeral or the door handle in the synagogue.”
To this position Schwarz brought with her a belief in “values within Jewish life that can guide modern identity.” And she puts that conviction to work in a diverse community, where “a sense of belonging” and “the ability to cross intersections or cross over between different world views or religious backgrounds” are key.
It is “important to be able to engage on a very human level with the people that I work with. And that is my way of being professional.”
Which is why her participation in Yesod’s Retreats for Senior Professional Leaders in Barcelona and Prague, were “so meaningful: because it was about relational Judaism.”
One of her prime objectives today is to transmit the community’s richness to members who haven’t reached beyond the narrow definition of family, to embrace Jews of different denominations. Another objective is to keep younger Jews interested. Many can’t afford or don’t want to pay a membership fee, and while they identify Jewishly, theirs is not the Judaism of their parents or grandparents.
In the very secular societies of Scandinavia, “many of our children are growing up in mixed families. Being Jewish is part of who they are – but they are also something else,” notes Schwarz.
In addition, “millennials have very different expectations about their own lives.” They will not be attracted to patriarchal or hierarchic organizations. So, if Jewish communities “are unable to change, then they can forget about attracting young people.”
Security is another pressing concern, she notes. “The Danish government has initiated work on an action plan against anti-Semitism, and the community is part of this collaboration.” The need became especially evident after numerous anti-Semitic incidents around the 81st anniversary of the Kristallnacht, this past November.
Much anti-Semitism is spread on the Internet – the very tool that changed Schwarz’ professional life. “It is part of the problem and part of the solution,” she says. “It is never going to go away; it is another layer of our reality.”