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NEWS STORY: European Jews gather to discuss future

c. 1999 Religion News Service NICE, France _ In a meeting unprecedented in size, scope and objective, nearly 600 Jewish activists and communal leaders from 39 countries converged on Nice at the end of May to celebrate their vision of a new, self-confident European Jewish identity. The meeting, the General Assembly of the European Council […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

NICE, France _ In a meeting unprecedented in size, scope and objective, nearly 600 Jewish activists and communal leaders from 39 countries converged on Nice at the end of May to celebrate their vision of a new, self-confident European Jewish identity.

The meeting, the General Assembly of the European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC), drew Jews from communities of all sizes in all parts of Europe; from Orthodox, Reform and secular streams of Jewish practice; and from age groups ranging from students to senior citizens.”The importance is that we are all here, from all over, and for many of us the only thing we have in common is that we are Jews,”Ya’akov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, said.

Organizers and participants said the gathering represented a major step in revitalizing Jewish life in Europe following the twin traumas of the Holocaust and communism, and in promoting European Jewry as a”third pillar”of world Judaism alongside the Jews of Israel and North America.”What can we do to help each other, so that our future is determined by ourselves,”said incoming ECJC President Cobi Benatoff of Milan.”The future is, with God’s help, in our hands. This is the first time in Europe that 600 Jews have sat down together to discuss policy for the future; what can European Jewry contribute to the new Europe of the 21st century?” The May 27-30 meeting was largely celebratory in character.

It devoted less time to formal sessions and placed more emphasis on allowing opportunity for informal social contacts as well as workshops on a number of issues of pragmatic interest. It was paralleled by a Singles Weekend organized for about 70 young adults from across Europe, who, between social events, joined some of the conference sessions.

One key theme emerged: An increasing self-confidence by European Jewry _ at least on a leadership level _ in relations with both Israel and with North American Jews.

Expressions of self-confidence were clearly seen in debate on approaches toward the process of restitution of Jewish property seized during the Holocaust. European speakers _ including representatives of the Dutch, Czech and French communities _ criticized international organizations such as the World Jewish Restitution Organization for being insensitive to local conditions, or bypassing local communities in their negotiations.

Several Israeli speakers at the meeting were dismayed that more emphasis on Israel’s centrality for Jews was not given by European speakers. Israel’s ambassador to France, Eliyahu Ben Elissar, bemoaned the fact that, in conference hall decorations, the Israeli flag was hung, side by side and the same size, with flags of European countries.”This attitude is outdated,”said one participant.”Anyhow, for us by now, the centrality of Israel is a given _ we don’t have to keep repeating it.” Nonetheless, optimism and self-confidence were paralleled by the examination and recognition of serious challenges that render the new European Jewish identity a still fragile concept, particularly on the grassroots level.

How to deal with negative demographic trends? How to train new community leaders? How to improve Jewish education? How to confront high rates of marriage outside the faith, and the issue of who is a Jew? How to reconcile differences between Orthodox and Reform? How to make Judaism relevant in today’s spiritual marketplace?”It was really important to sit down and discuss common problems, and to realize that we all are confronting similar issues,”said Helena Datner,president of the Jewish community of Warsaw.

More than 2 million Jews live in Europe, including Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union. Sizes of national communities range from 600,000 in France to 300 in Portugal. Accurate estimates are difficult to make, as many Jews remain unaffiliated.

The Nice meeting followed a series of smaller gatherings over the past four years. These included a 1995 conference on the Planning for the Future of European Jewry in Prague and a meeting on Furthering Jewish Life in Europe,held in Strasbourg, France, in 1997.

Jews in Europe are grappling with many of the same problems confronting Jews in America, but under different historical and physical conditions. Two-thirds of Europe’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, destroying centuries-old communities and traumatizing those Jews who chose to remain.

The Cold War effectively cut off the Jews of eastern and central Europe from the rest of the Jewish world. Communist oppression made many Jews fearful to express their Jewish identity and prevented most of them from knowing anything about Jewish practice or traditions.

Immigration from North Africa and elsewhere, meanwhile, changed the face of west European Jewry. And in many countries, east and west, Jewish communities were so small that they enabled only one form of practice,generally Orthodoxy.

The collapse of communism created new conditions for Jews in a newly united Europe.

As in the United States, European Jews are now free to choose what is described as a”voluntary”Jewish identity, and to shape what that might mean to them.

The ECJC is a Paris-based service organization with a small staff, which facilitates cooperation and communication among Jewish communities and organizations. It also offers leadership training and has set up an office to mediate contacts between Jewish communities and organizations and the European Union _ including contacts for obtaining project funding.”The ECJC’s mission is networking, getting people together,”ECJC chairwoman Ruth Zilkha told the meeting.”The Nice meeting shows that we are beginning to have a critical mass of new leaders.”DEA END GRUBER