European Jews grapple with identity

ROME — Change will be an overall theme in the European Jewish discourse during the coming year.

Indeed, there are changes expected in the relationship between the nations of Europe and Israel, as well as among the diverse Jewish communities of the diaspora. There will also be changes in how Jewish identity is defined and encouraged in the region.

All of these issues are likely to emerge in policy discussions among European Jewish leaders, as well as in the daily activities of individual Jewish communities.

Many concerns and challenges facing European Jewry are similar to those confronted by American Jews: intermarriage, outreach, community affiliation, fund-raising and the relationship with Israel.

But specific conditions in Europe add complications. European Jews not only run the gamut from fervently Orthodox to secular, they also speak different languages and live under different governments amid diverse cultural and political circumstances.

"There are differences between Europeans and Americans and differences between Eastern and Western Europeans, as well," said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee.

"The current topics of discussion — dealing with intermarriage and diaspora relations with Israel, for example — are debated much more openly and publicly in the U.S., with a variety of organizations and movements competing for the Jewish public," he said.

"In Europe, the debate…is more likely to be confined to the closed deliberations of communal leaders and policy-makers."

A revitalization of Jewish life is under way in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe, but nearly 50 years of communist oppression after the ravages of the Holocaust have left specific dilemmas that Jewish organizations and individuals must confront.

"Though by all accounts there are many, many Jews in Ukraine and Russia," Baker said, "decades of communist suppression have left the vast majority with no active connection to Jewish life — an enormous challenge to the understaffed and underfunded communal organizations, which have been recently established."

This problem of reaching out is by no means confined to Russia and Ukraine. Hungary is generally believed to have about 130,000 Jews, the third largest Jewish community in Europe outside of the former Soviet Union. Only France and Great Britain have more Jews. About 90,000 Jews are believed to live in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

However, only about 20,000 Hungarian Jews have some affiliation with Jewish programs or organizations, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association, an organization established in late 1989 after the fall of communism, estimates that only 3,000 to 5,000 Jews attend High Holy Day services in Budapest's 22 synagogues.

Many of the unaffiliated Jews retain lingering communist-era fears about "going public" as a Jew. Others are highly conflicted, even about whether to encourage their children to rediscover their Jewish heritage.

"Among my friends we discuss this issue frequently," one assimilated Hungarian Jew said recently. "We ask each other if we really want our children to learn about Judaism, if it's a good idea that they have a Jewish identity."

Most programs designed to enhance Jewish identity are aimed primarily at younger people and children.

The JDC, the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association and other groups have initiated programs specifically aimed at attracting unaffiliated adult Hungarian Jews — but not necessarily to synagogues. Budapest's year-old Balint Jewish Community Center, for example, hosts a wide range of programs aimed at "cultural" as well as "religious" Jews — and even non-Jews.

These activities include computer training courses, English classes, Israeli dance workshops, concerts and lectures. There are even workshops on intermarriage and raising children of an interfaith marriage.

"It allows unaffiliated Jews to enter the Jewish space, serving as an alternate way of expressing Jewish identity," said Israel Sela, director of the JDC in Hungary.

Along with individual Jewish identity, European Jews are now searching to restore a collective European Jewish identity. European Jewish leaders increasingly want European Jewry to take its place as a so-called "third pillar" in the Jewish world alongside Israel and the American Jews.

"We must develop a European identity," said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. "We have a great responsibility. We are on the continent where it all happened. We are neither survivors nor remnants. We are the keepers and heirs of a great tradition."