Although Europe’s Jewish community is unlikely to ever regain its pre-Holocaust numbers, it is experiencing a growth that it has not seen since before World War II, according to representatives from the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Rabbi Sacha Pecaric lived in Poland from 1997 until ‘005, and worked with the Lauder Foundation, which is dedicated to revitalizing Europe’s Jewish communities. He helped translate Jewish religious texts into Polish and witnessed firsthand what he described as a continued re-genesis of Poland’s Jewish community.
Pecaric, who was born in Yugoslavia and lives in Teaneck, will speak about the Polish Jewish community on Monday, May 8, at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. In an interview this week, he said that he saw a great transformation in the Jewish community during his eight years there.
When he first arrived in Poland, the Lauder Foundation had to bring in rabbis from outside of Poland to whom they paid stipends to work in communities in Warsaw and elsewhere. By the time he left, said Pecaric, the communities were supporting the rabbis on their own.
Pecaric told this newspaper in January that the Polish Jewish community has somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 members, a number that is hard to verify because many Jews are still secretive about their identities.
And it’s not just in Poland that the Jewish community is growing, according to the JDC’s Abby Pitkowsky, who will speak about contemporary European Jewry at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, also on Monday.
"There’s a tremendous amount happening," she said, explaining that the growth starts with a renewed interest in Judaism. "The most noticeable success has been the surge of interest by young adults and school-age children. We are hoping to apply these successes to our efforts to develop self-sufficient Jewish communities in the Former Soviet Union."
Both Pitkowsky and Pecaric are optimistic.
"The communities in Western Europe are very strong and self sufficient," Pitkowsky said. "In the last 15 years, communities in Eastern Europe have made giant strides in the development of leadership bodies and a corps of communal professionals. The result has been a flourishing of Jewish welfare and educational institutions."
These homegrown Jewish institutions are key for a community to survive and thrive on its own because "the community has to reach self-sufficiency in a timely manner to secure its future," she said.
But this is Europe, and anti-Semitism continues to shape its Jewish experience.
According to a ‘005 survey that Anti-Defamation League conducted in 1′ European countries, 43 percent of Europeans believe that Jews are more loyal to Israel than they are to their own countries; almost 30 percent believe that Jews have too much power in the business world; 3′ percent believe that Jews have too much power in international financial markets; and 4’ percent believe that Jews still talk too much about the Holocaust.
"Anti-Semitism continues to be a concern for European Jewry," ADL Director Abe Foxman told The Jewish Standard on Wednesday. "It differs from country to country but it’s there."
Despite the numbers, Pecaric still hope for Poland’s Jewish community.
"If you go there and look at Poland and you’re there for two days, it’s easy to come out and say they’re anti-Semitic," Pecaric said. "When you’re there longer, you see their [situation]. It’s not as good as Poles would like. I think the Poles are trying to cope with their past and with their involvement in the Shoah. Some people would feel their involvement was bigger, some think it smaller; that’s hard to assess."
The biggest threat to Europe’s Jews right now stems from the rise of fundamentalist Islam within Europe, Foxman said. But anti-Semitism is general is finally receiving the attention it deserves from Europe’s governments, which had generally ignored it for years.
And the country dealing with it best, ironically enough, Foxman said, is France. The top leadership of France recognizes the problem and speaks out; the government’s new task force to address anti-Semitism is another positive step other European countries should emulate, Foxman said. Italy also has been tackling the problem of anti-Semitism.
Understanding and committing to fight anti-Semitism abroad can be used to mobilize the U.S. Jewish community to help Europe’s growing Jewish presence, said Pitkowsky.
Pecaric said that the European Jewish community "has all the problems that this size Jewish community would have anywhere," he said. "Not enough people capable of organizing Jewish life, intermarriage, people struggling in their Yiddishkeit."
The problem lies in the fact that the communities are often insular, Pecaric said. The solution lies in enlarging their world. Encouraging Jewish identification can still be very problematic.
"In 1990 things started to loosen up, but the community is still very closed," he said, of the Polish communities specifically. "Sometimes they don’t have any great need to say ‘I’m Jewish.’ All the Jews around will die out, but if the community is a little bit more open, then there is a chance for people to join the community."
Many Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the FSU still need the North American Jewish community for support, Pitkowsky said. They want to duplicate the Jewish social models they see working so well in North America, which would lead them to become more self-sufficient.
Foxman feels that the American Jewish community should provide support to Europe’s Jews but should respect their independence at the same time.
"It’s British Jewry, French Jewry, German Jewry. We have to be there to be supportive of the options they take. It’s their decision. Our role is to support them in their decision and not substitute our views for theirs. We need to be there to support whatever decisions as a community and individuals they want to make as Jews."