New European Jewish Leaders Survey: Staying Put, Despite Growing Concern

By Marcelo Dimentstein

Against the backdrop of major shifts in European society and questions about what the future will hold, a new survey of Jewish leaders and community professionals notes the majority of respondents have no plans to emigrate despite ongoing concerns over anti-Semitism, security, and internal Jewish community issues including alienation from Jewish life and the economics outlook.

The Fourth Survey of European Jewish Community Leaders and Professionals, just released today by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development (JDC-ICCD) was conducted between April and May 2018 and offers a dynamic look at the decision-making classes of Jewish life across the continent, offering insights from a cohort of Jewish leaders balancing external threats and internal demands to make Jewish life more appealing and strong for future generations. We’ve conducted this survey every three years since 2008 to garner an understanding of the direction that Jewish leadership in Europe is taking, to gauge their thinking of critical issues of major import to their future, and to ensure that planning for these communities can be informed, current, and above all, realistic to the Jewish experience.

With continued debates about the fate of Jews in Europe, the most revealing data related to emigration and safety. When asked if they had made plans in the last five years to emigrate due to not feeling safe as a Jew in their country, 76 percent of respondents said “No,” 19 percent said “Yes,” and 3 percent responded they made active preparations to emigrate. At the same time, when asked their feelings of safety as a Jew in Europe, 63% responded they felt “rather safe,” 20 percent “very safe,” 13 percent “rather unsafe,” and 4 percent “not safe at all.” Geographically, respondents from Eastern Europe reported higher feelings of safety than their Western European Jewish neighbors: 96 percent vs. 76 percent.

These tensions persisted in other areas, including anti-Semitism. 66 percent of respondents noted that they expected anti-Semitism to increase in the next 5-10 years, but 73 percent considered adequate their government’s response to security needs. Western European Jewish respondents were more pessimistic about increasing anti-Semitism (75 percent) than those in Eastern Europe (56 percent).

The future of Europe as a whole, and of Jewish life, displayed further conflict. When asked about their confidence in Europe’s future, 51 percent reported pessimism and 49 percent were optimistic. This points to a more pessimistic outlook among Jews as compared to the general European population, who noted in an August 2017 Eurobarometer survey that 56% of Europeans showed optimism in the EU. On Jewish life, 49 percent agreed that the future was “vibrant and positive,” followed by 51 percent that rather or strongly disagreed.

The 893 respondents to the survey represented a broad demographic of Jewish life. They include leaders and professionals under 40 and over 55 years of age, were polled in 10 languages, and represented 29 counties. Among the highest rates of response, by nation, were France, Germany, Hungary, the UK, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Spain, Romania, Turkey, and the Czech Republic. The sample’s self-identified gender split was 416 men and 217 women.

The leaders and professionals polled also represented wide ranging roles and identities. On religious affiliation and outlook, respondents self-identified as 55 percent “religious” and 45 percent “secular.” Among the same sample, 41 percent noted they were “culturally Jewish,” 33 percent as “Orthodox,” and 26 percent as “traditional.” In terms of position in the community, respondents included organizational executive directors, program coordinators, and current and former board members from Jewish organizations; rabbis; principals of Jewish schools and professionals in Jewish education; young activists, directors or owners of media with communal content; intellectuals, academics, and recognized thinkers focusing on Jewish communities; and significant donors to these communities.

The survey also focuses on the priorities and threats for Jewish life in Europe. Among the priorities for communities, the respondents ranked the top five as: strengthening Jewish education; supporting Jews in need in your community; combating anti-Semitism; including young leadership in decision-making bodies; and investing in leadership development. As to threats, the leaders and professionals ranked top ten challenges in the following order: alienation from the Jewish community; demographic decline; lack of engagement; weakness of Jewish organizations; ignorance about Judaism; anti-Semitism; lack of effective leadership; lack of economic sustainability; internal Jewish conflicts; and terror & violence against Jews.

Despite poverty being the lowest concern on the list of threats at 26 percent, financial issues facing communities remained important. Most respondents in 2018, as in 2015, saw their community’s funding situation as “tight but currently manageable” (43 percent) while some reported it as “tight but increasingly unmanageable”(25 percent). Economic expectations for the next 5 to 10 years were grim: 49 percent expected the general financial situation of the community to deteriorate and only 18 percent expected it to improve. Regional differences also came to the surface on this issue, with 56 percent of those in Western Europe noting pessimistic expectations compared to 37 percent from Eastern Europe.

Critical communal issues also were the subject of changes, especially issues that often divide Jewish communities elsewhere. In an emerging trend, mixed marriages are no longer regarded as the most serious threat to communities, decreasing again to 40 percent in 2018 from 44 percent in 2015, and 64 percent in 2008 when this survey was previously conducted. On Israel, support remains high and the shape of communal conversations on Israel are also important: 83 percent of respondents agreed that all Jews have a responsibility to support Israel and 85 percent felt that Jewish communities should provide opportunities for members to share different opinions and points of view on Israel and its policies.

On engaging young Jews, the voices of respondents 18-40 themselves were particularly insightful. In terms of critical touch points for young adult engagement, leadership programs (72 percent) and international events and gatherings (66 percent) were ranked as top outlets. These were followed by Jewish Students Union (50 percent); synagogue programs (48 percent); volunteer programs in Israel (40 percent); Jewish professional networks (39 percent); and Moishe House and volunteer programs focused on social justice, both at 32 percent.

As Europe stands at a precipice again – made all the more resonant 100 years after the end of WWI – it is obvious that Jewish leaders and communal professionals are guiding communities through uncharted waters. For those investing in Jewish life here, and partnering with Jewish communities to strengthen them for the future, one can be heartened by respondent’s determination to remain part of the European fabric notwithstanding the odds. What comes next is the serious mining of these data, a reckoning on the realities of Jewish life in Europe, and the creation of a more robust roadmap to make its future a reality.

Marcelo Dimentstein, a social anthropologist, is Operations Director for JDC-ICCD.