Renewing the Jewish Communities of Europe through European Eyes

by Clive A Lawton

I was a little surprised to read Ariel Beery’s response to The Summer of Change and the JPropel programme that he attended in Uppsala Sweden recently. I was there too briefly and have attended other such events in the past. My abiding feeling on leaving them is a sense of buoyant optimism. So many young enthusiasts from so many walks of Jewish life! In contrast, Ariel’s article seemed to suggest that he felt disheartened at the impression he received of an old guard hanging on with dead man’s grip on the resources of the communities of Europe, while the younger generation became increasingly frustrated with the blocking of their creativity and initiatives so that they would eventually give up and leave.

So why might our responses be so different? I suggest it’s because he’s American and I’m European (oh OK – British!).

In previous writings (eg see my chapter European Models of Community: Can Ambiguity Help? in ‘Turning the Kaleidoscope’ ed Lustig and Levenson) I have suggested that Israel and America, for so long the dominant voices of world Jewry, carved up between them the ideological how-to-be-a-Jew discussion in the 20th century. While Israel ‘nationalised’ Jewish life, America ‘privatised’ it. In Israel, the state managed it for everyone. In America everyone was free to make it up as they chose. For a long while these two thriving centres conducted a dialogue of the deaf as to who was the most likely to survive into the 21st century. The one thing they mostly agreed on though was that Europe was a basket case, either dead or dying, a vast cemetery (or for the positive amongst them – a museum) with a few survivors left over from the Shoah. Both felt justified in the prescience of their forbears for leaving. Jewish life in Europe was always doomed.

But near the end of the 20th century, three startling things happened. America discovered that its system (or lack of it) for securing the future of the Jews wasn’t quite working as it had hoped. The huge upheavals of the Jewish Continuity developments emerged from that. Meanwhile, the Israeli government commissioned the Shenhar Report which found that most Israelis wouldn’t know a Jewish teaching if it bit them on the nose. (Still not quite sure what they’re doing about that!) But the third thing was that suddenly, in the midst of this momentary loss of self confidence on the future-of-the-Jews front, people noticed that Jewish life was not only continuing in Europe, it was actually starting to stir.

Now this might not be the way American Jewish communities do it or Israelis understand Jewish pride or whatever, but stir it most certainly is. Despite Ariel’s strong feeling that most of what happens in Europe is either an imitation or an extension of American or Israeli models, remember that two of the Summer of Change’s three sponsors – London’s JHub and Stockholm’s Paideia – are European initiatives, partnering the undoubtedly important American input and drive from the magnificent Shusterman Foundation.

What’s more, he did not mention the palpable presence of Limmud time and again, in discussions during the programme and in the evidence of what moved the participants. Limmud is of course another European initiative, started in England 30 years ago and now actually exported not only across Europe but also to the Americas and Israel. (Let me state an interest. I’m much involved in Limmud.) When in a session devoted entirely to Limmud the chair asked the audience who had been to a Limmud event somewhere, very nearly everyone present raised their hands. When she asked who had been involved in organising one, about half responded.

Limmud – and several other European Jewish phenomena (for example, Ariel mentions the European Union of Jewish Students – which makes either American or Israeli Jewish students look both amateur and underdeveloped as active forces in their communities) – frequently manifest the European skill or tradition of managing the contested space rather than demanding instant clarity.

It is instructive that Ariel’s later exchange with Jonathan Ornstein, the American who heads the JCC in Krakow, shows two Americans – one living and working in Poland – discussing an obviously unsatisfactory state of affairs in Krakow. But the guy working in Europe seems to have a little more patience and awareness that things move through muddle in Europe. Muddling through is the fuzzy logic system by which Europeans get things done. We have rules and fudge them. We have inclusion and exclude people. We have exclusion and let them in.

Yes it’s true that many of the leaders of some of our communities are innovation blockers. Remember, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ are real words in Europe, not slogans, and someone must stand up for them. But that might only make people try harder and result in more activity, outside the formal space. Is this to be regretted? A recent survey demonstrated that there are far more start-ups in European Jewry than in the US. Our frustrating old guard leaders – and there are fewer and fewer of them anyway – might just be the grit in the oyster.

But back to Limmud. If Ariel is looking for bottom-up, volunteer driven, inclusive, diverse initiatives, not built on the Holocaust and not driven by foreign money (though ‘foreign money’ is always very welcome!) , here it is, and that is maybe why Limmud took off in Europe even before it did in the US. Limmud does not try to ‘scale up’ American ideas nor is it a reaction to the Shoah. Ariel’s comment on that front (the Shoah and its impact on European Jewry’s perspectives) seems particularly unfair. The people who most frequently try to keep Europe in its Holocaust phase are the Americans and Israelis. Even the older leaders of European communities know that things need to move forward, though many of them are not sure how.

A key point is mentioned in passing. Much of this conflict in places like Poland are about real estate and restituted (or not!) property. Limmud – and the many exciting social entrepreneurs who were present in Sweden and weekly develop new initiatives across European Jewry – tend to avoid the business of buildings. We invest in people and ideas. We value each person for what they can bring and do not believe we have to wait for a professionalised workforce to lead us. We flatten hierarchies and do not (or at least try not to!) grovel at the feet of VIPs.

As Ariel rightly concludes, the reason why it matters that European Jewry survives is not just because it’s here and will be here for a long time but also because it has something to teach the newer Jewish worlds of America and Israel about how to cope with arguments and live through them. So Polish Jewry is arguing. Welcome back! Argument is the life blood of people and it will make both sides stronger. Or maybe it won’t, but it’s too early to call yet. You see, sometimes European Jews seem old, faded and jaded, but at other times they are just refreshingly mature.

Clive A Lawton is Senior Consultant: Limmud and Scholar in Residence: London Jewish Cultural Centre.