Young Jews party across Europe with Chabad rabbi as host

brussels, belgium  |  Ask European Jewish leaders about the major challenges facing their communities and you’re likely to get an earful about how hard it is to find mates for young singles.

London-born Rabbi Zevi Ives thinks he has hit upon a solution.

For three years, Ives has hosted gatherings for students and young professionals from across the continent, effectively creating a pan-European social network for Jews to socialize and party.

Ives’ strategy is straightforward: He promises a well-organized event, a nice hotel, good food and “lots of l’chaim.” Though the food is kosher and the atmosphere  — on Shabbat at least  — is religious, the Chabad-trained rabbi says Judaism is “not stuffed down their throats.”

At least five marriages have resulted from the events, and four more are pending, according to Ives, the Brussels-based director of the European Center for Jewish Students.

“I think it’s working,” he said.

The recent “Party Like a Jew” event in the Belgian capital was Ives’ latest creation. Some 400 Jews from all over Europe attended the Shabbat program, and an additional 400 turned up for a Saturday night ball.

While Ives considers his programs to be about three things  — Jewish continuity, pride and identity  — most participants had one thing in particular on their mind.

Revelers enjoy music and dancing at the “Party Like a Jew” weekend in Brussels Nov. 14.

“I’m definitely here to meet a guy,” said Gabi T., a 27-year-old parole officer from London who, like many people interviewed at the event, didn’t want to be fully identified.

Without fail, the 400 participants bemoaned the paucity of opportunities to meet Jewish mates in their home communities, even when those communities are in major Jewish centers such as London and Paris.

Though one attendee from Zurich described the event as a “nightmarish” stereotype of young Jewish singlehood, many said they appreciated the chance to socialize in a purely Jewish setting and with a critical mass of Jews.

Melody Paros, attending an ECJS event for the first time, said it was great to meet people from all over Europe rather than the “narrow-minded Parisians” she knows from home.

With the rise of the European Union and the decline of national boundaries across the continent, a new Jewish network is emerging, she said.

“I think this kind of project wouldn’t have been successful 20 years ago when Europe wasn’t so open,” Paros said.

“Here you have a little Upper West Side every few months or so,” said a Swiss Jew, comparing the scene to the Jewish population of New York.

After the sun went down to end Shabbat, and after the Simon Wiesenthal Center screened a film about the origins of Israel, participants retreated to their rooms to prepare for the ball. Within the hour they were milling about the lobby, the women in heels and cocktail dresses, the men in trim suits and neckties. Some were newcomers to ECJS; others had been to a half-dozen events.

Some of the men whispered, almost conspiratorially, that if the connection lasted only for the evening, that was all right, too. As the night wore on and couples on the dance floor gripped each other closely, it seemed a few might get their wish.

All of which might seem a bit unusual for a Chabad-trained rabbi to be facilitating. Ives acknowledges that some have questioned his methods, but the Orthodox rabbi technically doesn’t organize the Saturday night ball, leaving that to a local Belgian Jewish student group.

Then again, he does encourage the party, saying that if it weren’t for ECJS, the same people would be in another club on a Saturday night  — one where they likely wouldn’t be surrounded by other Jews.

“I think we have to change a little,” Ives said, “but without, obviously, changing the Torah.”

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.