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.]
When he was 19, Victor Sorenssen and some friends in Barcelona decided that Catalonian society didn’t know enough about Jews. So, they started a magazine, calling it Mozaika.
They wanted to reach a non-Jewish audience – “to find a kind of bridge,” says Sorenssen, age 37, who today directs the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ).
Mozaika “started in a very humble way, with a group of five or six friends meeting at home, having a glass of wine and discussing which topics we wanted to face,” says Sorenssen, volunteer and current president of the platform. “Ten years later Mozaika became a Jewish cultural center in Barcelona.”
Ultimately, these friends and many others triggered a whole movement to raise awareness about local Jewish history and communal life today.
“Judaism is alive in Europe,” he says. “There are vibrant things happening.”
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Sorenssen moved with his family to Barcelona at the age of three. His mother was Mexican and his father Spanish, with roots in Norway. “I grew up in a very Jewish environment,” says Sorenssen, whose father was briefly director of the local Jewish community.
Sorenssen attended the Barcelona Jewish elementary school but later went to a public high school, where suddenly he was “a strange boy with a strange surname. It was a first interesting experience in terms of identity, becoming aware that to be Jewish in Barcelona was not a normal thing.”
“I never felt attacked for being Jewish,” he adds. “But I found there was a deep ignorance.”
Stereotypes from 500 years ago persist to this day, he adds.
Sorenssen joined the local Reform Jewish youth movement and volunteered as a counselor with Atid, its youth department. At 18, he went to Israel for a year, working on a kibbutz and then at the Jewish Agency’s Jerusalem-based Institute for Youth Leaders, Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz.
It was when he returned to attend university in Barcelona that he started Mozaika with friends. “I was studying political science, another was doing research on the Jewish history of Barcelona, another was studying philosophy,” he recalls. “One of our handicaps is that no one was studying business!”
Nevertheless in 2009 Mozaika became the first-ever nonprofit Jewish cultural platform in Barcelona. They began to create links with other Catalonian institutions, such as the Jewish Museum of Girona. “I think it was very interesting because we were creating a dialogue between history and the present, between Jewish and non-Jewish associations, confronting narratives.”
The team grew: “We ended up in the middle of [Barcelona’s] old Jewish neighborhood, developing all kinds of projects related to Jewish culture” – from guided tours to lectures and concerts; from Muslim-Jewish dialog to explorations of Jewish cuisine.
Mozaika’s stated aim is to counter prejudices, stimulate curiosity, and ease the way to “mutual understanding, dialogue and peace.” It also hopes to influence the Spanish government’s response to cultural diversity, particularly through education, Sorenssen adds. “The Jewish contribution to Catalonia history is still relatively unknown.”
In 2017, after working for three years as director of the Jewish Community of Barcelona, Sorenssen was tapped to direct AEPJ. Its biggest projects are the 20-year-old “European Days of Jewish Culture,” which presents Jewish history and culture to the public across the Continent; and “European Routes of Jewish Heritage,” which operates under the umbrella of the Council of Europe.
Sorenssen thrives on exchange with peers: At a Yesod retreat he found that his contemporaries share similar concerns and goals: They want “to normalize the Jewish presence… and to participate in the social fabric” of their home countries.
“We must cooperate and work together,” he adds: “There are many challenges we have as Jews in Europe today. In this sense, I believe that the ability to work together, regardless of religious denomination, is fundamental.”
He also cherishes his contacts with American Jews: “Both diaspora communities can empower and inspire one another.” All too often, Jews outside Europe presume “that Judaism here was finished with the Second World War, and there is only anti-Semitism now. The reality, it is much more complex.”