In the ancient, cobble-stoned, quintessentially European city of Maastricht, Holland, this past weekend, a gathering of more than 200 Jewish youth was brought together to strengthen Jewish identity and communal associations on the continent.

Organized and hosted by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the four-day seminar targeted Russian-speaking Jewish youth from across Europe, and Germany in particular.

The specific topic of the gathering, organized in conjunction with the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, was the State of Israel’s fight against what is often described as the “delegitimization” of the country through hostile networks of pro-Palestinian activists, many of which are found in major European cities.

But the theme of the seminar was more of a background canvas to the larger goal of creating a Jewish social network for the thousands of young Jews in Europe who were either born in the former Soviet Union or born to ex-Soviet émigrés.

According to the Jewish Agency, approximately 300,000 Jews from the ex- Soviet bloc emigrated to central and Western Europe following the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Of those, 250,000 made their way to Germany, the Jewish Agency says, although the European Jewish Congress estimates that just over 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews reside in the country.

Approximately 100,000 are officially registered as members of Jewish communities, while an estimated 100,000 live in Germany but are not signed up as members of any particular synagogue.

For Michael Yedovtzky, director of the Jewish Agency’s operations in Germany and central Europe, it is critical to maximize what he describes as “the narrow window that is currently open” in which it will be possible to reinforce and strengthen the Jewish identity of this post-Communist Jewish generation.

“Many of these young Jewish people don’t know who they are,” Yedovtzky says. “They’re Russians, but not any longer, they’re Germans but they don’t want to be, they’re Jews but what does that mean for them?” he asks. “Most are not religious, so what does it actually mean for them to be Jewish?” But Yedovtzky says that despite this self-identification vacuum, this group of Jewish youth is “crying out for input, and searching for a place to belong.

“They want to know who they are, where should they look for a partner, what values they should raise their children with, and other critical considerations such as these.

“But they won’t search forever and if their Jewish identity is not sufficiently strong, then they’ll find something else,” Yedovtzky warns.

To provide spiritual input into the proceedings, the Jewish Agency also reached out to Rabbi Yechiel Brukner, an emissary of the Torah Mitzion national-religious organization, which sends rabbis and religious youth from Israel to bolster Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

Brukner and two young Torah Mitzion representatives from Israel who all work together in Munich, conducted the well attended Friday night prayer service, as well as an after-dinner songfest and the traditional havdala ceremony at the end of Shabbat.

“There is a spark within these young people and our job is ignite that spark into a flame, to provide them with Jewish experiences and to reduce the gap that they feel between themselves and the rest of the Jewish people,” Brukner said.

To a large degree, the seminar in Maastricht over the weekend, as well as other similar conferences and events run by the Jewish Agency in Germany and Europe, was largely about Jewish continuity, about ensuring that the vibrant and dynamic members of Europe’s Russian-speaking Jewish youth, and their future children, remain within the sphere of Jewish communal life and, ultimately, within the Jewish people.

For the Jewish Agency, bringing like-minded people together who have a common history and share similar challenges, for events such as the one in Maastricht, is seen as one of the most effective ways of helping them develop a Jewish social network and ensuring that they are not lost to the Jewish people.

And the challenge is considerable.

Although many of the seminar participants expressed a desire to more closely associate themselves with Jewish communal life, the reality of being dispersed in Germany throughout more than 100 communities means that this is not an easy task.

In addition, and despite a definite affinity to the Jewish people, it is not clear that marrying within the Jewish community is the highest priority.

Faina, a 20-year old medical student from Dresden, said that Jewish life in her city is weak. Born in Rostov-on-Don in Russia, Faina says she was raised with a Jewish identity but acknowledges that she could marry someone non-Jewish because of the circumstances in which she finds herself.

One particular angle that the Jewish Agency has pushed to bolster the Jewish identity of this particular group of Jewish youth is that of promoting a sense of national belonging to the notion of Jewish peoplehood.

Because, to a large degree, many members of this demographic feel little warmth for their linguistic or cultural home of the former Soviet Union or their current abode in Germany, advancing the notion of a Jewish national grouping is one of the most efficient ways of boosting their Jewish identity, Yedovtzky says.

Solidarity with Israel is very strong among Russian-speaking Jewish youth because of their lack of national belonging, as well as the fact that many of them have close family relatives in the country.

“The Jewish Agency is trying to make a sense of attachment and of Jewish identity for them, to reveal for them their Jewish horizons and a Jewish world through Israel,” Yedovtzky says.

The phenomenon of intense anti-Israel activity in Europe and the state’s ongoing efforts to counter it provide an opening to stimulate both the vigor of this demographic as well as their attachment to Israel, and thus their sense of Jewish belonging.

Over the weekend, experts and academics on social media networks and political science led lectures, round table discussions and workshops.

Ori Malkin, a 27-year-old reservist in the IDF Spokesman’s Corp, was one of the lecturers invited to the conference.

“Because they are young they have an instinctive appreciation for social media,” says Malkin, who is also a PhD candidate at the Bar Ilan School for Media Studies and Communications, which is a partner with the Jewish Agency for its activities in Europe.

“They are well informed as well, and know how to create content and fight against the kind of false and misleading info which can be spread easily in social network platforms.

“The idea in this seminar was to connect them to the IDF’s recent Pillar of Defense operation, to inform them about the public diplomacy challenges and battles we faced during the hostilities and drive home the fact that because traditional media is weakening, people like them can change the picture and help Israel to give over its message.”

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