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There is widespread support among European Jewish leaders for increased tolerance in conversion and communal membership guidelines as a way to combat increasing assimilation, according to a survey released Monday.
The survey - conducted by Gallup Europe between September 12 and November 6, 2008 and released by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's International Center for Community Development (ICCD) - analyzed the responses of 251 Jewish leaders and opinion makers from 31 countries, spanning all of Europe's diverse Jewish communities.
According to the findings, only 27 percent of respondents agreed the Jewish community should be limited to either those born to a Jewish mother or having undergone an Orthodox conversion.
Even among the modern Orthodox and Orthodox respondents, a considerable minority believe that conversion under rabbinical supervision from any denomination is valid, and that being born to either a Jewish mother or Jewish father should be sufficient to be considered Jewish.
The ICCD noted "remarkable tolerance toward intermarriage," with 85% of those surveyed considering it ill-advised to go up against intermarriage and exclude intermarried couples from the community.
"One of the most likely drivers of change in the future," was found to be lay leadership within communities, viewed by almost half (47%) of respondents as demonstrating strong commitment, educational training and professional success. In terms of fostering increased quality and quantity of such leadership, over three quarters of respondents (77%) support formal leadership development programs, either in a mentorship framework or in the institution of Jewish literacy programs.
The findings also revealed Israel to be a high priority among respondents, ranked third by 54% of respondents. The relationship was found to be "a complex issue," however.
Nearly half of respondents reported being "ashamed" of certain Israeli government actions, and three quarters believe events in Israel fuel anti-Semitism in their own countries.
Education was found to be a top priority, with three-quarters of respondents supporting strengthening Jewish education, and comparable percentages supporting the strengthening of Jewish schools and youth movements.
Among the younger Jewish leaders surveyed, the ICCD noted greater pessimism than among the older generation regarding the condition of their communities. Respondents under the age of 40 were three times more likely than respondents over the age of 55 to characterize the condition of Jews in their countries as unfavorable, and to describe their countries as unsafe to live and practice in as a Jew.
The ICCD also found that among younger respondents, there were almost no differences of opinion on a range of topics based on geographic location, from which the ICCD deduced "a gradual fading away of geographical differences among the younger generation."
Unconvinced of the validity of these findings, Serg Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress believes that "European Jewry on the whole would not agree with this support for relaxing traditional policies."
"One must consider the critical mass of a community. [The] power and importance of a community is based on demography. Small, minor communities with lots of assimilation undoubtedly would support more relaxed policies. If there were a similar survey done just in France" - a large, influential Jewish force in Europe - "the results would be entirely different," he said.
"Who are these Jewish leaders?" asked Asher Gold, spokesman for the Rabbinical Center of Europe. "European Jews consider rabbis to be the only leaders of communities, and no rabbi would agree with these findings."