Reflections on a Visit to Amsterdam’s Jewish Community

When we think of the Jews of Europe and their present struggle against anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes, we have to appreciate the richness of the lives they have and their desire to continue to live in their communities.

By Stephen G. Donshik

Last week I had the opportunity to spend some time in Amsterdam, most of which I spent in the neighborhoods where a significant number of Jews live. The initial reason for my visit was to see several very special museum exhibits: one at the Rijks Museum of Rembrandt’s late years, an exhibit of large portraits of groups and individuals at the Amsterdam Hermitage, and two fascinating exhibits at the Jewish Historical Museum on the Jews of the Caribbean and of Indonesia. However, my mother died six weeks ago, which meant I had to plan the visit around being able to attend shacharit, mincha and maariv minyanim so I could recite the Kaddish, the memorial prayer for deceased close relatives.

It was an interesting challenge to plan my week around my commitment to recite the Kaddish. It meant that I had to figure out the relationship between the times of each minyan and the openings and closings of the museums. In the process I was able to observe and engage with members of Amsterdam’s Jewish community several times daily. Given the times we live in, our conversations often revolved around security issues in European Jewish communities in general and their response to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel feelings in Amsterdam.

I arrived on a Thursday morning and immediately had to think about where I would daven mincha that afternoon. I wound up taking the tram to the Amstelveen neighborhood, which houses synagogues, a yeshiva, a Jewish home for the aged, and a number of kosher restaurants. I went to one of the restaurants for a late lunch and engaged with the waitress about life in Amsterdam. She told me that, in response to anti-Semitic incidents in other parts of Europe, the Dutch government had decided to place a police presence at the entrance to every Jewish religious and educational institution. She told me how uncomfortable she was that her two children had to enter their community day school with armed guards standing outside.

She then shared with me a discussion that her young son and daughter had about whether the police were there to protect them or to prevent others from harming them. They saw the police presence as a positive, in contrast to their mother, who was horrified by the need for this kind of security. She told me how she felt sick every time she took her two children to school in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon.

She was hoping that things would get better in Europe and that there would no longer be a need for this kind of security. At that point I had not seen the police presence myself and was not quite sure what she meant. After my meal I walked several blocks to the Orthodox day school that has a mincha service at 4:00 pm. I was struck by the number of children I saw on bicycles wearing kippot.

I arrived at the school about 3:15 pm. Outside it was a structure that looked like a mini-trailer that sat on stilts about 4 ½ feet above the ground and had windows on all sides. Outside stood four policemen who looked like SWAT team members based on their uniform and equipment.

I walked up to the main gate and rang the buzzer; a security guard answered who asked me what I was doing there. When I replied that I came for the mincha service, he told me it would not start until 4:00 pm. I said I knew that, but was a tourist. When I asked if I could wait inside until the service began, he agreed to let me into the Beit Midrash. I was a little surprised that he allowed me to wait inside, yet it was comforting and seemed like a sign of some normality.

As 4:00 pm approached the teachers and children came into the Beit Midrash; after the service they went out to the yard and some went home. Some parents came to pick up their children, and some went home by themselves. Apparently, despite the police presence there is a feeling of security and the people do not feel under siege.

In the evening I went to the Shteibel shul not far from my hotel; outside the shul was another trailer with a policeman outside. I rang the old-fashioned bell and someone came to the front door, looked out from behind the curtain, and let me come inside. I guess I did not look threatening, and the person just let me enter, even though he did not know me. Everyone was warm and friendly and invited me to come back Shabbat morning when there would be a big Kiddush with cholent and kuggel.

Friday morning, I went to a shul closer to my hotel to use the mikveh and for shacharit. As I walked down the street in the dark at 6:15 am and passed another police trailer, I wondered if someone would ask me what I was doing at such an hour near the shul. Yet no one inquired about my presence, and when I rang the bell I was immediately let in after I announced I wanted to use the mikveh. The person who answered the bell did not ask me any other questions: As soon as I said I came to use the mikveh, she let me come inside.

Unfortunately there was not a minyan, and when one of the men heard me say I needed a minyan to say Kaddish, he told me if there was not a minyan in five minutes he would take me to the Shteibel. However, just a minute later he inquired as to whether there was a minyan there, and then he took me over so I could say Kaddish there.

The rest of the week I went to the Shteibel for shacharit and maariv. Most men who came wore a hat, but a small number wore kippot in the street to and from shul. The police presence outside contrasted sharply with the comfort people felt as they traveled to and from shul. Throughout the week and in the numerous conversations I had with members of the community, only the waitress in the restaurant expressed any fear or discomfort.

I was struck by the sense of Dutch Jewish identity reflected in most of these conversations. Most people did not seem to have a feeling of impending doom nor feel the need to respond to the prime minister’s call for the Jews of Europe to come to Israel. The Jews of Amsterdam have a rich history that is filled with accomplishments and tragedy. They are committed to maintaining their presence and strengthening their Jewishness through their institutions, as well as continuing to welcome people like myself who come for short visits.

I would like to conclude by sharing one incident that happened at the Rijks Museum. As an Israeli I was somewhat apprehensive about traveling in Europe. I decided I would enter Amsterdam with my American passport and register at the hotel as an American. When I was asked where I was from, I was cautious about saying I was an Israeli. One day at the Rijks Museum when I was getting something to eat from my locker, an older women was standing nearby when she realized she did not have the half-euro needed to use the locker. I could she was frustrated and I gave her the coin. She was quite surprised by this act of kindness; I told her that I had been in Amsterdam a week and everyone was so nice to me and that this was a way for me to reciprocate. She asked me where I was from and decided to tell her I was an Israeli so that she would then think positively about Israelis. She looked at me and asked, “Atah Midaber Ivrit?” (Do you speak Hebrew?) It turned out she had made aliyah and lived in Israel for 18 years before returning to live in Amsterdam. Both of us were quite surprised, and she was really quite happy about the exchange, not only about the half-euro I had given her.

When we think of the Jews of Europe and their present struggle against anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes, we have to appreciate the richness of the lives they have and their desire to continue to live in their communities. We should be prepared to offer support and encouragement and defend their right to live as Jews in the Western world – and not just encourage them to pack up and leave their countries of origin. We Jews have always been part of the world’s people, and we should continue in our role of enhancing our lives and the lives of those around us throughout the world.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.