WARSAW – The convention of the Conference of European Rabbis was held in the
Polish capital this week. It ended on Wednesday, after three days of debate and
discussion among European Jewry’s leading rabbinic figures over the challenges
facing their communities today.
The conference of approximately 200
rabbis from the UK to the Ukraine was the largest gathering of rabbis in Poland
since the end of the Second World War, and was held amid a convivial atmosphere
of clerical cooperation.
Be-robed, black-clad, rabbinical figures
conferred on numerous issues, wearing a broad range of head-coverings, and
sporting facial-hair ranging from designer stubble to flowing white
Top of the agenda was discussion and strategizing for dealing
with recent threats to two vital aspects of Jewish life; attempts to ban ritual
animal slaughter, shechita
; and brit mila
, ritual circumcision.
many of the rabbis were more upbeat about the state of European Jewry then might
have been thought.
Dayan (religious judge) Yonason Abraham of the London
Bet Din told The Jerusalem Post
that very often, the good news is drowned out by
more headline-grabbing affairs.
“There’s a much higher percentage of
people practicing Judaism, of people participating in communal life, and Jewish
youth engaging with their religion,” he said. “This coincides with a large
increase in the amount of Torah study and Jewish learning throughout our
Rabbi Moshe Lebel, the rabbinical director of the
Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and head of the Torat Hayim Yeshiva in
Moscow, is also encouraged by the growth in the number of Jews participating in
“Jews have come out of hiding in recent years and there’s
a new mood,” he said.
"We’re building new shuls and new communities, and
this is where the CER comes in. We’re helping rabbis in small communities
[ritual baths], erect eruvin
(ritual Sabbath enclosures), and
helping with conversions.”
But there is no denying that despite something
of a Jewish renaissance in a number of European countries, the possible ban of
shechita and restrictions on circumcision in some countries, as well as intense
anti-Israel sentiment, are cause for concern.
Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas
Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, is skeptical of the
true motives behind campaigns for circumcision regulation and anti-shechita
Threats to circumcision have arisen in the Netherlands where
the Royal Dutch Medical Association called for the practice to be ended in
September this year, and laws imposing a number of restrictions on circumcision
have been mooted in Finland in recent years.
“The root cause is always
some kind of anti- Semitism, even if it’s veiled behind animal rights or child
welfare,” he said. “Such campaigns are political statements and their message is
‘Jewish tradition is inhumane.’ “Being liberal just to liberals is hypocrisy,”
Goldschmidt said, “if you’re going to be illiberal when it comes to religious
The bottom line, he said, is that if such measures are
adopted, Jews will leave.
Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine Ya’acov Bleich
sees these threats as born more of a militant secularism taking hold of Western
Europe. Eastern European countries, he said, value human life and rights more
than animals’ rights, and countries such as Poland with a strong Roman Catholic
tradition respect religion more than those in the West.
Herberger, who serves the Jewish community in Warsaw, also sees a positive
attitude in Poland towards Jews, which has helped what he sees as a great
revival in Jewish communal life in the country.
“People are thirsting for
Judaism here,” he said. “They haven’t had exposure to yiddishkeit for a long
time. The chain was almost completely broken, but now there’s an opportunity to
create something, to fan the flames and really advance Jewish life in
Anti-Semitism is not something that Herberger believes is very
prevalent in Poland. He said that in his experience Poles are “philosemitic” and
have positive attitudes to the contribution of Jews to society. “If you want to
see the threats you can, it depends what you want to see,” he
But challenges still remain.
Abraham worries about the
“polarization” of Jewish life in the UK, where those in the strong communities
are growing in their observance and participation, while those in the more
peripheral neighborhoods and provinces have less exposure to Judaism and are
consequently, he states, assimilating to a much greater
Assimilation is also a concern for Ukrainian Jewry, according to
Bleich, as is the current financial situation, which hinders the establishment
of communal infrastructures.
As for anti-Semitism, Lebel of Moscow is
largely unconcerned. It’s not that there are no threats or concerns for Jewish
communities in Europe, he argued, but that the worries and tensions remind
people of their identity.
“These kind of problems obligate people to come
closer to the community and share in its lot,” he said. “In a way, these dangers
are a boon, because they reinforce our sense of being different. Without a
little anti-Semitism, being a Jew becomes too easy and our identity can get