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entries tagged with: Ruth Ellen Gruber


Nazi past haunts Austria

ROME – Austrians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for president after a volatile campaign that focused in part on right-wing extremism and raised the ghosts of Austria’s Nazi past.

Incumbent President Heinz Fischer, a Social Democrat, is expected to win a landslide victory over his main rival, Barbara Rosenkranz, a regional leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which once was led by the late Joerg Haider.

Two weeks ahead of the election, two public opinion polls showed Fischer, 71, with more than 80 percent of voter support, compared to 12 to 14 percent for Rosenkranz and 4 to 6 percent for Rudolf Gehring of the small Austrian Christian Party. Re-election of the popular Fischer was such a foregone conclusion that the main conservative force, the Austrian Peoples Party (OVP), did not put up a candidate.

Rosenkranz, a 51-year-old mother of 10, entered the race in early March in a bid many experts saw as a test for the Freedom Party’s staunchly anti-immigrant, law-and order, anti-European Union platform ahead of regional elections later this year.

The wife of a key longtime member of a now banned neo-Nazi party, Rosenkranz quickly sparked an outcry over ambiguous statements about the Holocaust and criticism of Austria’s tough 1947 anti-Nazi law.

In response, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the Catholic archbishop of Vienna, said that “[s]omeone who questions the National Socialism prohibition law and fails to make clear statements regarding the Holocaust is not an option for me personally.”

Members of Austria’s 8,000-member Jewish community joined political, civic, and social network groups in leading opposition to Rosenkranz’s presidential bid.

A Jewish community statement called her candidacy an “embarrassment” for Austria and a “mockery of the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Shoah.”

Jewish community president Ariel Muzicant helped organize a candlelit anti-Rosenkranz rally on March 25, drawing thousands outside the Hofburg Palace, the seat of the Austrian presidency. The rally grew out of an anti-Rosenkranz Facebook group that had more than 91,000 members as of two weeks before the elections.

Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and many Austrians were willing supporters of the Nazi regime. But the victorious World War II Allies officially declared Austria “the first free country to fall victim to Hitlerite aggression.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the country began a close examination of its World War II history, when Kurt Waldheim was elected president in 1986 despite revelations of a Nazi past.

Following the public outcry over her criticism of the Austrian law banning Holocaust denial, Nazi organizations, and Nazi ideology as “an unnecessary restriction” on freedom of opinion, Rosenkranz signed a public declaration “disassociating” herself from Nazi ideology.

Critics, however, said her ambiguous views dated too far back to benefit from the apology. More than seven years ago, a journalist already had branded Rosenkranz a “closet Nazi.”

“Rosenkranz is on the extreme right wing of an already extreme right party,” said Hanno Loewy, the director of the Jewish Museum in the western Austria town Hohenems.

Immigrants and Muslims, rather than Jews, are the main target of the Freedom Party’s rhetoric. About 500,000 Muslims live in Austria, and the party campaigns under slogans such as “The West is for Christians” and “Homeland instead of Islam.”

Rosenkranz has called for the reintroduction of border controls with Austria’s eastern neighbors in order to stop the “import of crime.”

Despite their omission, Jews feel targeted. In March, vandals defaced the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz with anti-Jewish and anti-Turkish graffiti.

“The progeny of Muslims are for us what the Jews were to our fathers. Be on your guard. Jews and Turks, poisonous blood,” read the graffiti, spray-painted in big letters on the outer wall of the camp, where more than 100,000 people were killed.

“FPO leaders and functionaries keep getting caught in open or coded Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and neo-Nazi affairs,” said American historian Stan Nadel, an expert on immigration who teaches in Salzburg. “They don’t talk openly about Jewish conspiracies, just about ‘East Coast’ conspiracies.”

Rosenkranz, he said, “doesn’t say the Holocaust never happened, she just says she believes in the history she was taught in school; she went to school at a time when school history courses generally stopped with 1918,” Nadel said. “Her anti-Semitic supporters know that and they understand she is covertly denying the Holocaust, but she hasn’t said it out loud, so she hasn’t broken the law.”

The Freedom Party’s outspoken leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, said his party’s views were justified by a poll last week showing that 54 percent of Austrians believe that Islam poses “a threat for the West and our familiar lifestyle.”

The survey, conducted by the IMAS polling agency, showed that 72 percent believe Muslims would “not stick to the rules” when it comes to living in Austria and 71 percent believe Islam “does not match western beliefs in democracy, freedom, and tolerance.”

Strache, 40, a former dental technician, is expected to make a run for the provincial leadership when key elections are held in Vienna in October. Analysts say the Social Democrats may lose their absolute majority in the capital, and they predict sharp gains for the Freedom Party.



Reaction to tragedy showcases changes in Polish-Jewish relations

Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, were buried after funeral services at St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw on Sunday. Andrzej Rybczynski/AFP/Getty Images</td>

ROME – The Jewish reaction to the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other senior Polish officials in an air tragedy highlights a remarkable change in how the Jewish world views Poland.

The prayers, public statements, and personal tributes, including a special remembrance during the March of the Living, were normal expressions of grief and solidarity for a close friend and ally — in short, heartfelt sentiments that probably could not have been made 20 or even 15 years ago.

First Person

Poland looms large in the collective Jewish consciousness. Huge numbers of North American Jews trace their ancestry to Poland, and before World War II Poland was Europe’s Jewish heartland. Some 3 million Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Until fairly recently, however, much of the Jewish world regarded Poland as little more than a vast, anti-Semitic Jewish graveyard. These attitudes were exemplified in 1989 by Israel’s then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who famously declared that Poles “suck in” anti-Semitism “with their mother’s milk.”

Today, however, Poland is one of Israel’s best friends, and Jewish leaders hailed Kaczynski and others on the doomed plane for their dedication in helping write a new chapter in Polish-Jewish relations. Kaczynski was buried on Sunday.

This change in Jewish attitudes by no means came overnight. It was the fruit of a deliberate, sometime rocky post-communism Polish policy aimed at convincing the Jewish world that Poland — and Poles — could be trusted partners.

This included organized outreach, Poland’s emergence as an ally of Israel, and extensive Polish interaction with international Jewish organizations on both a formal and informal basis. In 1995, the Polish government even established the unprecedented post of roving ambassador to the Jewish diaspora to foster contacts and provide a conduit for communications.

Meanwhile, lacerating public debates in Poland over anti-Semitism and the Polish role in the Holocaust, sparked by several books and films, also demonstrated to the Jewish world a willingness in Poland to tackle these troubling issues.

“Jewish attitudes became more positive as the world began to recognize Poland as a modern democratic nation rather than the apocryphal place of our ancient sufferings,” says Michael Traison, a Jewish American lawyer who has maintained an office in Poland since the mid-1990s. “And attitudes were impacted by the growth of information flowing out of Poland to the Jewish world as people learn that ‘Am Yisrael chai’ [the Jewish people lives], even in Poland.”

Jewish figures themselves played key roles by demonstrating their own openness to Poland and highlighting the revival of contemporary Jewish life in the country.

Shevach Weiss, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, became a popular and even beloved figure among locals as the Israeli ambassador to Poland from 2000 to 2004.

I’ll never forget seeing him plunge into a crowd of 10,000 frenzied fans, most of them Catholic Poles, who crammed into the main square of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, for the final concert of the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in 2002.

The Krakow Festival and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jewry under construction in Warsaw also have won enthusiastic American supporters. Poland’s American-born chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, has been tireless in spreading the word that a small but living Jewish community exists in Poland.

Organizations such as the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation and the American Jewish Committee make it a point to bring Jewish groups to Poland not just to commemorate the Holocaust but to take part in Jewish cultural events and meet local Jews and Catholic Poles.

“The story of Judaism in Poland did not end with the Holocaust,” promotional material for Taube-led tours says.

What all this means is that after decades of looking at Poland through a lens tinged darkly with tragedy and distrust, Jewish leaders increasingly are willing to demonstrate belief that Poland has changed. Or at least is changing.

To be sure, this does not mean that Polish anti-Semitism has vanished; on the contrary. It does recognize, however, that other forces are in play, too.

To someone like me, whose relationship with the Jewish experience in post-Holocaust Poland goes back nearly 30 years, this change of attitude is as dramatic as it is welcome. It remains to be seen, though, how far it has trickled down.

An American Jewish friend here in Italy, who first told me the news about Kaczynski’s death in the plane crash, was surprised when I expressed dismay.

“I don’t know anything about him except that he’s an anti-Semite,” my friend said.

An Israeli Facebook friend wrote: “I wish that Poles — who indeed suffered a grievous loss in the plane crash that killed its leadership — felt the same sense of loss over the 3 million Polish Jews murdered in their country, often at the hands of the Polish people.”

Still, I was moved and encouraged by the homage paid to Kaczynski by the 10,000 participants of this year’s March of the Living, the annual youth gathering that commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day with a ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Back in 1994, when I was the cultural guide for a March of the Living group, the youngsters I was with spent their last evening in Poland acting out anti-Polish skits. Their handbook took for granted that the youngsters would feel nothing positive toward local Poles.

“We will hate them for having participated in atrocities, but we will also pity them for their woeful living conditions today,” it read.

But at this year’s March of the Living, young participants wore black armbands to honor Kaczynski and the other crash victims.

“We join our Polish brothers and sisters in their time of sorrow, and express our deepest sympathies for their loss,” a statement from the March of the Living said. “Our thoughts, hopes, and prayers are with them during this difficult time.”



Introducing non-Jewish Europeans to Jewish life

PITIGLIANO, Italy – In Italy, where there are only about 25,000 affiliated Jews in a population of 60 million, most Italians have never knowingly met a Jew.

“It’s unfortunate,” said the Italian Jewish activist Sira Fatucci, “but in Italy Jews and the Jewish experience are often mostly known through the Holocaust.”

Fatucci is the national coordinator in Italy for the annual European Day of Jewish Culture, an annual transborder celebration of Jewish traditions and creativity that takes place in more than 20 countries on the continent on the first Sunday of September — this year, Sept. 5.

Synagogues, Jewish museums, and even ritual baths and cemeteries are open to the public, and hundreds of seminars, exhibits, lectures, book fairs, art installations, concerts, performances, and guided tours are offered.

Tourists shop in a store in the former Jewish district that sells kosher wine, matzoh, Jewish pastries, and souvenirs. Ruth Ellen Gruber

The main goal is to educate the non-Jewish public about Jews and Judaism in order to demystify the Jewish world and combat anti-Jewish prejudice.

“What we are trying to do is to show the living part of Judaism — to show life,” Fatucci said. “What we want to do is to use culture as an antidote to ignorance and anti-Semitism.”

Some 700 people flock to Culture Day events each year in Pitigliano, a rust-colored hill town in southern Tuscany that once had such a flourishing Jewish community that it was known as Little Jerusalem.

Most local Jews moved away before World War II, and today only four Jews live here in a total population of 4,000. But in recent years the medieval ghetto area has become an important local attraction. The town produces kosher wine, and a new shop sells souvenir packets of matzoh and Jewish pastries.

Culture Day events here include kosher food and wine-tastings, guided tours, art exhibits, and an open-air klezmer concert.

“There’s a lot of ignorance, but a lot of curiosity about Jews,” said Claudia Elmi, who works at Pitigliano’s Jewish museum, which opened in the 1990s and now attracts 22,000 to 24,000 visitors a year — the vast majority non-Jews.

“But the Jews were seen as closed, or even physically closed off,” she said. “The open doors of the Day of Culture are very important.”

Tourists line up to tour the Jewish museum and the synagogue, a 16th-century gem that fell into ruin following World War II and was rebuilt and reopened in 1995. They make their way down steep stairs into the former mikvah and matzoh bakery, which are located in rough-hewn subterranean chambers carved into the solid rock.

“We didn’t know anything about Judaism before coming here,” said Rosanna and Paolo, tourists from Padova who visited Pitiligano’s Jewish sites a week before Culture Day. “We learned a lot here, particularly about the religious rituals and kosher food.”

Now in its 11th year, Culture Day is loosely coordinated by the European Council of Jewish Communities, B’nai B’rith Europe, and the Red de Juderias, a Jewish tourism route linking 15 Spanish cities.

Countries participating this year include Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Holland, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. This year’s theme is “Art and Judaism.”

Each country makes its own programs and depends on local resources and volunteers to host, plan, and carry out activities. Thus in some countries, only a few events take place: Norway will have a klezmer concert and lecture in Oslo; Bosnia has only an art exhibit in Sarajevo.

Elsewhere, a varied feast may stretch for several days. In Britain, this year’s activities last until Sept. 15 and include dozens of events in London and more than 20 other cities.

Jewish art “is both distinctive and universal” said Lena Stanley-Clamp, the director of the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture. “It certainly speaks to and is enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.”

Italy is by far the European Day of Jewish Culture’s most enthusiastic participant. Thanks to Fatucci and her army of volunteers and communal organizers, it has grown to become a high-profile fixture on the late-summer calendar, with events and activities up and down the Italian boot.

Last year’s events attracted 62,000 people — about one-third the total number who attended Jewish Culture Day events around the continent and about twice the number of Jews in Italy.

This year, activities are being staged in 62 towns, cities, and villages, including many places — like Pitigliano — where few or no Jews live.

“There is a great curiosity about Jews and Jewish culture here, so the opportunity to engage in a Jewish cultural activity is very attractive,” Fatucci said. “The Day of Jewish Culture became a reference point for this.”

Part of the success, she said, was due to the fact that Culture Day in Italy is so well organized and publicized. Jewish communities work closely with public and private institutions, and the event receives government support and recognition.

But, Fatucci added, Jewish heritage in Italy encompasses a remarkably rich and varied array of treasures — Roman-era Jewish catacombs in Rome, medieval mikvahs, baroque synagogues, and the historic ghetto and centuries-old Jewish cemetery in Venice.

“Italy is the country of art, par excellence,” Fatucci said. “But in many places, people have lived side by side with fragments of Jewish culture without knowing anything about them — or even knowing they were there.”



Startup continent: European Jewry

Ruth Ellen GruberWorld
Published: 12 November 2010

ROME – When I was in the United States recently, I gave a series of talks on contemporary Jewish life in Europe. One of my aims was to shed light on some of the creative new initiatives that are shaping the Jewish experience here, often against considerable odds and expectations.

“My eyes were opened to a Jewish world I had no idea existed,” one woman told me.

Having written about the Jewish experience in Europe for many years, I sometimes forget how surprised people can be by developments that by now I take for granted.

Americans accustomed to viewing Europe through the prism of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism can be taken aback when they come face to face with such living Jewish realities as newly opened synagogues, crowded Jewish singles weekends, and hip-hop klezmer fusion bands.

Some folks — metaphorically, I hope — go so far as to express shock to find that a country such as Poland is “in color.”

“Where had I seen Poland outside of World War II newsreels, Holocaust movies and photos, and, of course, ‘Schindler’s List’?” Rob Eshman, the editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal wrote last month after visiting Poland for the first time. “That entire movie was in black and white, except for the fleeting image of a tragic figure, a doomed little Jewish girl in a bright red dress.”

The American Jewish challenge when it comes to modern Poland, he said, “is to reverse the ‘Schindler’s List’ images, to see the country as mostly color, with a little black and white.”

An optimistic new report now provides statistical backup for the bold new Jewish realities in Europe that I described in my talks.

Published last month, the 2010 Survey of New Jewish Initiatives in Europe aims to provide a “comprehensive snapshot” of Jewish startups — that is, of “autonomous or independent non-commercial European initiatives” that have been established within the past decade.

“Conventional discussions of Europe often emphasize anti-Semitism, Jewish continuity, and anti-Israel activism,” the survey’s introduction states. “While we do not dismiss or diminish those concerns, we know that these are only part of the story. The European Jewry we know is confident, vibrant, and growing.”

The findings are remarkably positive.

The survey presents data on 136 European Jewish startups and estimates that some 220 to 260 such initiatives are in operation, nearly half of them in the former Soviet Union and other post-communist states.

“There are more Jewish startups per capita in Europe than in North America,” it says.

These initiatives, the study says, reach as many as 250,000 people, of whom about 41,000 are “regular participants and core members.” They span a broad range of ages and affiliation, although European Jewish startup leaders and founders themselves “tend to affiliate with progressive and secular/cultural forms of Judaism.”

Other findings reveal that the “vast majority” of these new Jewish initiatives are focused mainly on “Jewish education, arts and culture, or community building,” and most of their financing comes from foundation grants and “grass-roots labor.”

The survey was carried out by Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that promotes Jewish innovation, in cooperation with the British Pears Foundation and the ROI Community for Young Jewish Innovators based in Jerusalem.

I asked Shawn Landres, Jumpstart’s co-founder, whether he thought the survey’s findings presented a picture that was too rosy, given the challenges still faced by European Jewry.

“I don’t think the survey is overly optimistic,” he told me. “The numbers of initiatives and the number of people involved (especially the otherwise unaffiliated) are accurate indicators of the creativity of European Jewry.”

Still, he conceded, “the financial figures, especially the small budgets and low number of individual financial contributors, indicate just how fragile they are.”

Landres noted that the demographic challenges facing European Jews — long a hot topic for strategic planners — are “complex.” But, he said, they could not be reduced to “a single line in a single direction.”

“Even if Jewish numbers in Europe are stagnating or declining overall, the threat or opportunity is in the details,” he said. “What about intermarried families that identify as Jewish? What about the 80,000 or so people engaged by these new initiatives who have no other connection to the organized Jewish community? What about key population centers like London, Budapest, and Berlin that will remain Jewishly vibrant for generations to come?”

Landres said the fact that the survey showed nearly twice as many startups per capita in Europe as in North America “should challenge a few stereotypes.”

But, he added, “I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising, given the number of respondents who feel that established institutions simply aren’t making room for them and their peers.”

Landres said all the initiatives analyzed in the survey were in operation as of this year, but he acknowledged that some may not last.

“Even so,” he said, “projects need not be permanent to have impact, and the people involved frequently move on to other more successful Jewish communal endeavors armed with invaluable experience. Without risk and tolerance for failure, we cannot make transformative progress.”

JTA Wire Service


Cantors sing in Rome

Can Jewish sacred music sung in a Roman Catholic basilica help relations between Christians and Jews?

For the Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors, the answer is a resounding yes.

Twenty Reform cantors from across the United States traveled to Rome this month for just that purpose, performing a unique concert of Jewish prayers and sacred texts at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a cavernous church adapted by Michelangelo from the ancient Baths of Diocletian. Among them was Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro of Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia.

“We are here as spiritual emissaries, not political emissaries,” said the president of the cantors’ conference, Susan Caro of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “We recognize the power of music to transform as well as reach across cultural and religious lines.”

The concert, titled “To God’s Ears,” was organized by the New York-based Interreligious Information Center in cooperation with Cardinal William Keeler, the emeritus archbishop of Baltimore, who is the basilica’s cardinal priest.

“Presenting music of the synagogue in churches in order to reach the laity could develop into something very, very worthwhile in interfaith relations,” said the Interreligious Information Center’s executive director, Gunther Lawrence.

Lawrence said several cathedrals in the United States and Britain already had expressed interest in similar concerts.

The Nov. 16 performance featured a range of prayers and texts set to both traditional melodies and music by composers dating from the Renaissance to the present day.

In welcoming remarks, Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, the regular priest of the basilica, introduced the 90-minute concert as a journey into the “profundity of the liturgy,” saying it was “very important to be here together and praising our God.”

The cantors, about half of them women, hailed from California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Arizona, and Texas.

“Our goal was to educate people in Jewish culture and Jewish synagogue culture,” said Cantor Roslyn Barak of Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco, who helped coordinate the event. “We feel that through music you can heal, make friends, touch people, reach out.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Miguel Humberto Diaz called the initiative “a wonderful opportunity.”

“Any kind of art, especially music, is a way to bring people together for the sake of the common good,” he told JTA.

Diaz and the Rev. Norbert Hoffman, the secretary of the Vatican’s commission on religious relations with the Jews, were among the few dignitaries in attendance.

Highlights of the concert included an arrangement of the “Adon Olam” prayer by the Renaissance Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi and a rendition of “Sim Shalom” by the 20th century-composer Max Janowski.

The concert also included the world premiere of “Mah Ashiv Ladonai-Quid Retribuam Domino,” a setting of Psalm 116, with words in Hebrew and in Latin, by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y. Contzius, a member of the American Conference of Cantors, did not take part in the concert. Longtime observers of Jewish-Catholic relations said it was likely that the concert marked the first time that a cantorial group had performed such a concert in a Roman Catholic church.

“Italian traditional cantors would not, as far as I know, perform in a church, and I know of no instance when this ever happened in the past,” Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of collections at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., told JTA.

To watch a video of the cantor’s concert, visit JTA Wire Service


‘Were there Jews here?’

In Slovakia, strategizing about preserving Jewish past

Ruth Ellen GruberWorld
Published: 02 September 2011

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – In 1989, on the eve of the fall of Communism, the American poet Jerome Rothenberg published a powerful series of poems called “Khurbn” that dealt with the impact of the Holocaust on Eastern Europe.

In one section, he recorded conversations he had had in Poland with local people who had little recollection of the flourishing pre-war Jewish presence.

“Were there once Jews here?” the poem goes. “Yes, they told us, yes they were sure there were, though there was no one here who could remember. What was a Jew like? they asked.

“No one is certain still if they exist.”

I often think of this poem when I travel to far-flung places in eastern and central Europe, and it was certainly on my mind on a trip to Slovakia this August.

Maros Borsky, vice president of the Bratislava Jewish community, standing in the Orthodox synagogue in Zilina, Slovakia. The shul, unused by the small Jewish community, is one of the sites on his Slovak Jewish Heritage Route.

That is because, yes, there are still Jews here, and the post-Communist revival has reinvigorated Jewish communities in the region.

Also, despite this, however, numbers are still so small that even in many places where Jews once made up large parts of the population, Jewish history and heritage have been, or run the risk of being, forgotten.

“Look,” my friend Maros Borsky reminded me in Bratislava. “Kids who were born after 1989 don’t even remember Communism.”

Borsky is trying to do something about this—which is why I was in Slovakia.

Borsky, the vice president of the Bratislava Jewish community, is also Slovakia’s leading Jewish scholar and expert on Slovak Jewish heritage. At 37, he is the leading Slovak Jewish activist of his generation, engaged in everything from religious, cultural, and educational initiatives to his own personal commitment to raising his daughters in a Jewish home.

“I’ll do anything to support his efforts, he has made such a difference to Jewish life here,” said Andrew Goldstein, a British Reform rabbi who has played a hands-on role in nurturing Jewish revival in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for more than two decades.

Now chairman of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, Goldstein comes to Bratislava once a month to hold classes and lead a non-Orthodox Shabbat service as an alternative to the one conducted by the city’s only resident rabbi, Baruch Myers, who is affiliated with Chabad.

Goldstein and I met in Bratislava nearly six years ago when he officiated at Borsky’s wedding. This time, Goldstein and his wife and I, along with half a dozen Israeli journalists, were on a five-day tour that Borsky led to Jewish communities and heritage sites around the country.

The aim was to introduce the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route, an educational and touristic itinerary Borsky devised as a means of integrating Jewish heritage and memory into local tourism, culture, and education so that Jews, their history, and their fate are not forgotten.

I have followed the development of the route ever since Borsky first conceived it five years ago, and I believe it is an important strategic endeavor that could provide a model for other countries. Only 3,000 Jews live in Slovakia today, but there are synagogue buildings or Jewish cemeteries in literally hundreds of towns and even major cities. The Slovak Jewish community does not have the resources to save or even to care for all these places.

So Borsky convinced communal leaders to sanction a strategy that concentrates on just a few. This resulted in his Slovak Jewish Heritage Route, which includes 24 flagship sites in all eight regions of the country: mainly synagogues, but also Jewish cemeteries, Holocaust memorials and museums. They are marked with plaques bearing a distinctive logo.

Each was chosen for its historic or architectural significance but also for its sustainability. This does not mean, of course, that other sites should be forgotten. But to be included on the route, there must be a partnership in place with a local body to ensure long-term care and maintenance.

Our tour took in more than a dozen of the sites: from the active synagogue in Bratislava to Presov in the far east, where the magnificence of the surviving synagogue utterly dwarfs the potential of a Jewish community that now numbers only a few dozen people.

We saw synagogues used as art galleries, and one now used as an art school. There were little Jewish exhibits, and ruined synagogues still undergoing repair. In one of these, the partially ruined synagogue in Liptovsky Mikulas, Goldstein and his wife stopped to chant prayers so that the sounds of Jewish liturgy could once again be heard.

One of our most meaningful encounters was with a high school teacher in the small town of Spisske Nova Ves. For nearly a decade, she has made care of the Jewish cemetery and continuing research into the history of the destroyed Jewish community an integral part of her class curriculum.

I had visited most of these places in the past. Going from one to the next in the space of five days, however, hammered home a range of challenges that face both Jewish heritage and Jewish life.

“The saddest thing for me was not to see the empty synagogues, but to learn that the Orthodox synagogue in Zilina is still intact but not used for services,” Goldstein told me after the trip. “On Rosh Hashanah, the tiny community just meets in a nearby hall and reminisces—there is seemingly nobody to lead even a short service.”

Rothenberg’s poem was rarely out of my thoughts.

“Were there once Jews here?”

JTA Wire Service


Europe’s Jewish revival

Is Jewish life in Hungary and Poland sustainable?

Ruth Ellen GruberCover Story
Published: 07 October 2011

BUDAPEST, Hungary — It is not easy to decipher the complicated trajectory of Jewish life in post-communist Europe.

“There are claims and counterclaims about contemporary European Jewish life,” said Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of London’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR). “At one end of the spectrum there are reports of a remarkable renaissance of activity; at the other, there is a strong narrative of decline.”

Boyd’s institute recently published a pair of reports written by local researchers in Hungary and Poland that offer a more nuanced view. The reports looked at the development of Jewish life in these two countries since the collapse of communism and examined the challenges their Jewish communities face going forward.

The reports, Boyd said, “illustrate that both perspectives are correct: While Jewish life has undoubtedly been reinvigorated since the collapse of communism, considerable investment is required to ensure the long-term sustainability of Jewish life in both places.”

Hungary, with an estimated 100,000 Jews, has the largest Jewish population in post-communist Europe outside the former Soviet Union. In Poland, the European Jewish heartland that was home to more than 3 million Jews before the Holocaust, the Jewish population today is estimated at only 8,000-15,000.

The reports were based on personal interviews with a range of Jewish community activists in each country, followed up by focus-group discussions. Their results highlight similarities in the post-communist Jewish revival process, but also illustrate the differences between various Jewish communities.

They also demonstrate the increasing importance of alternative forms of engagement in nurturing identity among younger Jews. These include Jewish community centers, Jewish studies programs, grassroots educational projects such as Limmud, and even initiatives such as Jewish cafes and culture festivals.

The research in Hungary showed a community reinvigorated over the last 20 years, but facing the challenge of low engagement in communal life, with only 10 percent of the Jewish population affiliated with a Jewish organization.

Young people especially appear alienated from established Jewish communal structures, such as the umbrella Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities — or Mazsihisz, to use its Hungarian acronym.

The JPR Hungary report calls for an urgent overhaul of Mazsihisz and the entire institutional system of organized Hungarian Jewry to ensure that decisions on issues affecting the whole community are made in a democratic and transparent fashion.

It also calls for greater religious pluralism and more cooperation and coordination among the plethora of often competing local Jewish groups and initiatives. This, it said, could help foster the emergence and training of a new generation of leaders “who recognize that success in any part of the community should be regarded as success for the whole community.”

“One of our purposes was to present conflicting views on every issue we considered,” sociologist Andras Kovacs, an expert on Hungarian Jewish issues who was one of the co-authors of the report, said. “We wanted to provoke debate.”

In Poland, research bore witness to the rebirth of a community that remains tiny but has a disproportionate impact both at home and abroad, in part due to the importance of Polish Jewish history and heritage to world Jewry.

Because of this, the report said, and “because of the remarkably positive reaction of the Polish state and most of civil society to Jewish interests and concerns,” Jewish programs in Poland “have a very high multiplier effect,” with a direct impact “both on the world community of Jews of Polish origin, and on Jewish and non-Jewish Poles alike.”

Therefore, it said, preservation and study of Jewish heritage — from cemeteries, synagogues and Holocaust sites such as death camps, to archival, museum and library collections — “are of great importance.”

Moreover, it said, while Orthodox Jewry remained the primary established religious stream, only a minority of the community identified with Orthodoxy.

The report urged greater investment in programs supporting Jewish cultural initiatives and non-Orthodox alternative forms of Jewish engagement.

“There is a future for the Jewish community in Poland, but the community will remain small,” Konstanty Gebert, a leading Jewish intellectual and writer who co-authored the report, said. “While the Orthodox part will remain a core of it, it represents only a minority,” he said.

“Culture is a main identity factor for young Jews,” he went on. “The most important things are happening on the interface between the Jewish community and society at large.”

Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, said the report gave a good overall picture of Jewish life in Poland today and many of its complexities.

“It accurately portrays Polish Jews as being optimistic and not overly concerned with anti-Semitism, which stands in marked contrast to the rest of Europe,” he sad.

He added, however, “I would have liked to see more focus on the somewhat unnatural structure of the community, where official religious life is Orthodox, but few of the members are. Polish Jewry coming to terms with that situation, and having its institutions more accurately represent the people is to me the greatest challenge we face moving forward.”

The reports were the first two of a series of JPR investigations into contemporary Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe funded by the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Future reports will deal with Ukraine and Germany.

“This research highlights the importance of avoiding generalities about Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe,” Sally Berkovic, the chief executive of the Rothschild Foundation Europe, said in a statement. “Despite some shared experiences, each Jewish community, with its distinctive characteristics, has responded differently to the challenges precipitated by the fall of communism.”

JTA Wire Service


Italy in transition

As new era begins, an uptick in anti-Semitism

Ruth Ellen GruberWorld
Published: 02 December 2011

ROME – Crowds on the streets of Rome jeered and cheered late last month when their long-serving, scandal-plagued prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, stepped down. A choir even sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in front of the presidential palace as he handed in his resignation.

Italy’s Jews do not expect Berlusconi’s ouster to have specific repercussions on their community, or on Rome’s close relations with Israel. Indeed for many, these questions are largely secondary to deep-seated concerns over the general impact of the government shake-up as Italy struggles to regain financial footing and restore a tarnished international image.

“Will something change in respect to the Jews?” asked Laura Quercioli Mincer, a Jewish intellectual and university professor. “I didn’t even ask myself this.”

The lack of concern for Jewish welfare as Berlusconi leaves political life is a sign of the relative security and stability enjoyed by Italian Jews. However, a report released in October by the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism found mounting levels of anti-Semitism in the country.

The parliamentary report cited a 2008 study by Italy’s Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation that shows that 44 percent of Italians express attitudes and opinions “in some way hostile to Jews” and that 12 percent are “fully fledged anti-Semites.” Of Italians aged 18 to 29, some 22 percent were found to be hostile to Jews. The figure was even higher among males living in northern Italy, the heartland of the anti-immigrant Northern League party.

The report was the fruit of more than two years of work by the committee, which was chaired by the journalist Fiamma Nirenstein, a parliamentarian for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. It also revealed a dramatic proliferation of anti-Semitic websites and social networks, and a level of hatred against Israel that the report says goes far beyond the limits of legitimate criticism.

The committee, instituted in 2009 by the president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, was composed of more than two dozen members of parliament from all political parties. Its work involved analyzing polls and surveys, holding hearings with experts and carrying out other investigations.

“We have been attempting to understand the new aspects of this phenomenon, which is as aggressive and genocidal as it always was, but it is presently hiding itself by assuming new forms,” said Nirenstein at the official presentation of the report.

In general, Jewish attitudes toward Berlusconi echo mainstream right-left political divisions.

“The Italian Jewish community is a mirror of the country as a whole,” said Daniele Nahum, vice president of the Milan Jewish community, which with more than 6,000 members is the country’s second largest after Rome.

Jewish political figures occupy prominent positions on both the left and right. They include Emanuele Fiano, a member of parliament for the leftist Democratic Party, and Nirenstein, a Berlusconi ally.

A flamboyant billionaire media mogul who dominated Italian politics since the mid-1990s, Berlusconi, 75, was elected in 2008 to his third (although not consecutive) term as prime minister at the head of a center-right coalition that included his People of Freedom party and the Northern League.

In a recent interview with the Israeli daily Israel Hayom and reprinted on Nirenstein’s website, Nirenstein called Berlusconi “a brilliant person.”

“In a period when Italy was entirely in the hands of the communists and the Catholics, he took Italy and ushered it into the era of modern economy,” she said. “All the rest is less important to me.”

Berlusconi has had a complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with the Jewish world. He was notorious for telling “Jewish jokes,” making tasteless references to the Shoah and committing other gaffes on Jewish matters.

His staunch support for Israel, however, won him and his center-right government backing from many of Italy’s 30,000 Jews and plaudits from groups like the Anti-Defamation League.

Still, many Italian Jews remain firmly opposed to Berlusconi and his political allies, and they deplored the backing he received from some far-right politicians and his alliance with the Northern League.

“We here in northern Italy sense the influence of the Northern League more vividly than in the south,” Venice University Prof. Shaul Bassi, an active member of the Venice Jewish community, said in an interview.

“In my opinion, it’s racist,” he said. “It’s been a surprise how Berlusconi could ally himself with a party that uses the same type of rhetoric that the Nazis used against foreigners.”

Nahum said, “Berlusconi’s relationship with Israel was positive. But then again he retained close ties with the dictatorial Arab regimes. The failure of this policy could be seen during the Arab Spring.”

Gad Lerner, an influential leftist Jewish TV host and political commentator in the national media, celebrated Berlusconi’s downfall. He described the day Berlusconi resigned as a “day of liberation” for Italy.

“What happens next is uncertain,” Lerner wrote on his widely read blog. “But the shame of being represented in the world by a man like that is now behind us.”

JTA Wire Service

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