Friday, July 11, 2014

In Eastern Europe, A New Generation of Jewish Leaders

Sitting in her office in a rather grim-faced building attached to the handsome Nozyk Synagogue, I asked the new President of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, Anna Chipczynska, what it was that she campaigned on in order to win the election. “To what extent did I really have to campaign?” she ventured.

One only has to look at the gender and age composition of the recently-elected board of the community. “Three out of seven people are 35 years or younger, four out of seven are women, so I think it’s an interesting signal. The other interesting signal is that I am not Orthodox – I practice Reform, so it’s something new for the community.” She added, “the fact that I was elected maybe also has to do with a feeling that people simply wanted to see the younger generation come to power.”

Eastern European Jewry is defined generationally in a way that cannot be said of their western European counterparts, simply because of the experience of communism. It varies country to country, but in general it can be said that the so-called ‘middle generation’ who came of consciousness between 1945 and 1989 and did not experience the vibrancy of Jewish life prior to the Holocaust have weak or underdeveloped Jewish identities.

While the institutions and bonds of the Jewish community were reconstructed after the Second World War, Jewish identity became unmoored, detached from tradition and knowledge. Sameness triumphed over difference, collectivism at the expense of individualism. In Poland in particular, there was also the trauma not only of the Holocaust but also the state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaigns of 1968, both of which informed a certain view that assimilation was preferable to identification.

Today, there is a sea-change in eastern Europe, and the young generation that is the mirror image of the middle generation is taking positions of authority and seeking to affect change in their communities. This young generation – more active, confident, and interconnected – is shaped on the one hand by the freedoms communism bequeathed upon its passing and on the other by a revival of Judaism in all its facets which began to gain ground during the 1990s.

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Synagoging Poland

What is to be done with the buildings of Jewish life when there is no Jewish life left to speak of?

This was one of the questions suggested by this year’s 7@Nite Festival in Krakow. For one evening a year, the doors of the city’s synagogues are thrown open to the general public and exhibitions, lectures, and live music aim to remove the barriers and dissolve the mystique that surround these places of worship. This year’s theme, Synagoging Poland, sought to take visitors on a journey around the existent, non-existent, or forgotten synagogues that still dot the Polish landscape.

“We have around three-hundred synagogues still standing in Poland in different forms with different things happening in them,” Monika Elliott, Program Director of the JDC Poland Foundation, told me when we had a chance to sit down in a café in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter, a few hours before 7@Nite began. “But in general, people have no idea that, when they pass by their hairdresser every day, the building it’s in used to be a synagogue seventy years ago. We have no idea about our own recent history.”

Indeed, as Weronika Litwin outlined in a 2010 symposium exploring contemporary Jewish life in Poland, of the synagogues that managed to survive the Holocaust and the destruction of Nazi occupation, very few regained their old function as houses of worship. In large part, this is because in the smaller towns and villages, no Jews remained to pray in them. Litwin writes in “Synagogues and Cemeteries: What Is Being Done and What Needs To Be Done”:

Taken over by the State Treasury, the synagogue buildings were often used as warehouses, which led to their further deterioration. Synagogues which were significant for their historical and architectural value were often turned into museums or libraries. This prevented them from falling into complete ruin, but has not helped their slow decline, as neither the museums nor libraries in Poland have the money for the costly preservation works which are usually required for historical buildings.

The Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland, responsible for the protection and commemoration of surviving monuments of Jewish cultural heritage in Poland, has worked on restoring some of these synagogues, particularly in southeastern Poland as part of a project called the Hasidic Route, which follows the remaining traces of Jewish life in the region. The first stage of the restoration of two historic synagogues in Krasnik – one of which dated back to the middle of the seventeenth century – was completed in 2010, for example.

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Friday, May 2, 2014

Whither the Evil Son?

American and British Jewish communal institutions alike are presently grappling with the question of what to do with the “evil son” — he who, in the words of the Passover Haggadah, “by divorcing himself from the community…denies our very essence.”

In the United Kingdom, students are debating the place of Israel in Jewish life on campus, where political, cultural, and religious activities center around a confederation of Jewish societies (J-Socs) under the umbrella of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).

Since the last UJS conference in November, it is the clear policy of the UJS that the Union should defend Israel’s right to exist regardless of whether individual members support the Israeli government. Individual J-Socs are expected to have a conversation about Israel — not only the modern state, but Israel over 3000 years of Jewish history — and J-Socs are encouraged and advised to effectively counter the BDS movement on campus where necessary.

But Gabriel Webber — a member of Brighton & Sussex J-Soc — recently wrote in defense of a motion that failed at that conference, one that called for a wall of separation between Israel advocacy and the activities of J-Socs. While “all Jewish students want to go to a J-Soc where they can hang out with fellow Jewish students, to eat Jewish food and to be an active member of their religion or culture,” there remains a minority that don’t “want to wave flags and engage in an active campus-based fight against BDS.”

“J-Socs are there to provide a fulfilling Jewish life for Jewish students who are away from home, often for the first time, and it is a tragedy and a travesty if Jewish students are made to feel so uncomfortable there that they cannot participate,” Webber added.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

British Jews Go the Way of American Jews

First, the good news. The most recent census revealed that, for the first time in decades, the decline in Britain’s Jewish population has been arrested. In 2011, 263,346 chose to identify themselves as Jewish by religion in England and Wales, compared to 259,927 in 2001.

Beneath the headline figure, however, all it not as it appears. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research, having recently published the preliminary findings of its substantial and substantive National Jewish Community Survey, demonstrated that British Jewry is undergoing a generational shift in Jewish identity, culture, and affiliation, one that has the potential to transform Jewish life in the United Kingdom – and not necessarily for the better.

As one generation passes and another supersedes it, British Jewry is experiencing a weakening of mainstream Judaism, greater Haredisation at one end of the spectrum of Jewish identity, and a withering away of Jewishness through intermarriage and disaffiliation on the other.

Membership of Orthodox Jewish synagogues has fallen through the floor, having declined by over 30 percent in the past twenty years. In the JPR survey, while those who described themselves as “traditional” represented a quarter of the sample, the number who identified themselves as having had a traditional upbringing totaled 40 percent, with a clear drift in adulthood towards progressive, secular, and cultural forms of Judaism.

Ultra-Orthodox synagogues, meanwhile, have seen their membership double since 1990. Today, 13 percent of British Jews can be considered Haredi. Of those who chose to identify themselves as Haredi in the JPR survey, 63 percent are under 40, compared to 31 percent of traditional Jews and secular or cultural Jews. Previous studies have shown that nearly one third of Jewish children under 5 years of age in Britain is born of Haredi parents.

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Friday, February 7, 2014

Britain’s Struggle To Engage Young Jews

“I believe that we are now at one of those critical, pivotal moments in our history,” Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, recently informed the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “It’s sneaking up on us. What is happening is an upheaval that threatens our cohesive fabric.”

American and British Jewry share the same fate. On one end of the religious spectrum, through intermarriage and assimilation there is a drifting away from Jewish identity. In the United Kingdom, the preliminary findings of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s National Jewish Community Survey showed that under half of intermarried Jews attend a Passover seder, one third fast on Yom Kippur, and only 18% attend a Friday night dinner most weeks.

In the center of the religious spectrum, British Jews under 40 are more likely to value belief in God or marrying within the Jewish faith than their parents, yet some don’t have the knowledge or language of Judaism to live a fully Jewish life. And, at the other extreme, the burgeoning, young Haredi community is displacing an aging, secular or traditional population. Today in the UK, nearly one third of all Jewish children under the age of five are born to Haredi parents.

“By definition, the Haredi community lives in seclusion, and so the mainstream community might not be aware of changes going on in that community,” Janner-Klausner told The Forward. “I am concerned about and connected to the Jewish people as a whole. As a community, we have to be able to talk to each other and understand each other.”

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013
The oldest synagogue in the United Kingdom. (at Bevis Marks Synagogue)

The oldest synagogue in the United Kingdom. (at Bevis Marks Synagogue)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Could Spreading European Anti-Semitism Drive Jews From Homelands?

As the gnashing of teeth about the fate of American Jewry in the wake of the Pew Research Center survey continues, a newer and far more troublesome study of European Jewry ought to keep the supposed problem of defining Jewishness by the food you eat and the jokes you tell in some sort of perspective.

Conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, known as the FRA, “Discrimination and hate crime against Jews in E.U. Member States: experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism” surveyed 5,847 individuals 16 years old and over who considered themselves Jewish, residing in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The headline figures were frightening enough. Across Europe, 66% of Jewish people see anti-Semitism as a problem in their respective countries today — as high as 90% in Hungary and 85% in France. The perception, moreover, is that over the past five years, the level of anti-Semitism has increased, with 76% of respondents saying it had gone up a lot or a little.

Where this increase has taken place might be surprising. But first, some more numbers.

Thirty-eight percent of Jews now avoid, all the time or frequently, wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jews in public; 60% of Swedish Jews and 51% of French Jews act this way. Forty-eight percent of Jews in Hungary and 46% in France have considered emigrating because they do not feel safe living in those countries as Jews, with 90% of French Jews stating that the Arab-Israeli conflict affects their feelings of safety.

Immediately discernible from the statistics, though, is that the number of people who fear becoming a victim of anti-Semitism is greater than those who have experienced it as verbal insults, harassment or a physical attack. While 21% have been the actual victim of an anti-Semitic incident in the past 12 months, 46% worry about the possibility of such an assault.

There is also tremendous regional variation between fear and experience. In France, for example, an astonishing 70% fear becoming the victim of a hate crime. In the United Kingdom, however, the fear is not as heightened, with 28% of respondents worrying about becoming a victim of verbal assault, and 17% the victim of a physical assault — still high numbers, to be sure.

The reason for this disparity between perception and experience, however, is not groundless panic or hysteria; it comes because of new manifestations of anti-Semitism, principally dissemination via the Internet and new media.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

First Look at Museum of Polish Jews

When Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews’ main exhibition opens to the public in September 2014, it will add to the city’s Jewish historical trail something which does not presently exist: a history of Jewish life.

The core exhibition has been in development since 2003, when the master plan, including the concept and narrative line, was first conceived. Created and curated by an international team of more than 120 scholars led by Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Professor of Performance Studies at New York University, the multimedia narrative exhibition will consume the 43,000 square-feet of space located beneath the lobby of the museum. The 1000-year story the exhibit will tell is, Deputy Director of the Museum Zygmunt Stępiński told the Forward, “a unique moment and unique example of Jewish life” in Europe.

In the absence of source materials — the physical evidence of Judaism in Poland having been largely erased during the 20th century — the core exhibit will utilize interactive, theatrical, and textual elements to immerse visitors in the story. Thus, when visitors enter the first gallery, they will find themselves in a poetic forest, where tales and legends of the first Jewish settlers in Poland are to be carved onto the trees and projected onto the floor.

Following the medieval gallery examining the life of the Jewish merchant, the second gallery brings the history up to 1500 when, during the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Poland was becoming the centre of the Ashkenazic world. The exhibition will make available to visitors a Virtual Library where they will be able to explore the earliest Hebrew and Yiddish texts printed on Polish soil, as well as an interactive scale model of Krakow and Kazimierz.

A centrepiece of the core exhibition, Stępiński explained as we toured the museum, will be a reconstruction inspired by the wooden synagogue that once stood in the shtetl of Gwoździec, near Lviv. Its timber frame — which rises through a gap in the roof of the core exhibit so that it is visible in the entrance hall — has been erected using methods and tools designed to replicate those used in the 17th century. For the painted, decorative ceiling, similarly authentic in its recreation, the museum used the interiors of churches of the period for reference, there being no traces of Gwoździec’s synagogue left, it having been burnt to the ground during the Shoah.

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Friday, November 8, 2013

Poland’s Jewish Revival Marred by Anti-Semitism of All Stripes

Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, was on hand to affix the mezuza at the entrance to Warsaw’s first Jewish community center at its grand unveiling, October 27. The act of opening the building and cutting the ribbon was not his, however, but given over to a young boy while Schudrich helped hold the band in place.

The paint was only just dry on the modest but modern whitewashed building, located behind one of Warsaw’s main pedestrian thoroughfares right in the center of the city. Hundreds of people from Warsaw’s growing and diverse Jewish community attended the opening night: secular and religious, families and young people, Anglo and Israeli expats, Poles rediscovering a lost heritage.

Kosher food and wine were also served — “the JCC wanted to be kosher,” Schudrich told the Forward. And in today’s Poland, amid a swelling rebirth of Jewish life, that was something Schudrich didn’t take for granted.

This past July, the Polish parliament upheld a ban on shechita, or kosher ritual slaughter, by a vote of 222–178. The defeated bill would have reversed a ruling by Poland’s high court mandating the stunning of animals before slaughter to avoid cruelty in the slaughter process. Kosher slaughter, like halal slaughter under Islamic law, requires an animal to be conscious when it is killed. The court’s November 2012 ruling overrode a 2004 exemption given to the Jewish and Muslim communities on grounds of religious freedom.

But that is not the only fly in the ointment. The JCC’s festive opening occurs against the backdrop of a stubborn persistence in Poland of latent — and sometimes not-so-latent — anti-Semitism, calling into question just how secure a Jewish revival can be.

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Shul of One’s Own

Walking around the depressed Ramsgate of today, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that when the financier Sir Moses Montefiore purchased a country estate here in 1831, this seaside settlement was considered the height of sophistication and chic.

Located on a far easterly point of the Kentish coast of England, bereft of the holidaymakers that would have kept the place alive before the age of the package holiday, Ramsgate has a feeling of neglect and decay about it now — shuttered shop fronts and dank arcades. It is the sort of place that Morrissey had in mind when he sang of the coastal town that they forgot to close down.

But during the late Georgian period when Montefiore was establishing himself in Ramsgate, England’s coastal towns were beginning to take off, a trend hastened by the coming of the railways. Among the well heeled, the idea that taking dips in England’s forbidding waters or gulping down the cold, salty sea air could be restorative became a health fad. Ownership of a seaside pile, meanwhile, was an essential sign of status.

Montefiore’s residence, East Cliff Lodge, was demolished in 1954 after it fell into rack and ruin, yet what remains of his presence in Ramsgate is quite extraordinary. In August 1831, construction began on a synagogue on the grounds of his estate, a personal synagogue in the manner of the estate chapels built by the Christian aristocracy, where Montefiore appointed the rabbi and chose the psalms.

Inaugurated in June 1833, the synagogue — situated in the middle of a thicket — is small and simple in structure, rectangular with a semicircular space made to accommodate the Ark. Its exterior walls are whitewashed, and on the front of the building is a blue clock with golden hands and numbers, under which is inscribed a motto: “Time flies. Virtue alone remains.” As English Heritage, an organization responsible for the preservation of historic landmarks, asserts, it is the only such example of a chiming clock in an English synagogue.

Inside, the hall lined with granite, marble and plush red fabric is lit by way of an octagonal dome made of red and clear glass, with stained-glass windows of blue, red and green at the level of the gallery (a later addition), as well as a single chandelier and several candelabra. Above the Ark is a small, circular window depicting the Ten Commandments, and on either side are plates displaying the family coat of arms. Upon one of the walls is a plaque inscribed with a prayer to “our most gracious Sovereign King George, our gracious Queen Mary,” as well as to the Queen Mother and Edward, the Prince of Wales.

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