Talking Judaism in parliament

The Rabbinical Centre of Europe marked its 10th anniversary last week with a conference on multiculturalism hosted at the European Parliament.

RCE 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
RCE 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The European Parliament hosted a somewhat different group of men in suits last week, when over 100 European rabbis attended discussions under the banner “Is Multiculturalism Sustainable in 21st-Century Europe?” The talks were part of a two-day conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE), an organization representing over 700 European rabbis. In attendance were also Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger and Religious Affairs Minister Ya’acov Margi.
In his address to the plenum, Metzger said it was not enough to combat anti-Semitism on the Continent; rather, proactive measures should be taken to show Judaism’s positive aspects. He called to institute a “Judaism day” in Europe, with schools exposing their students to the religion.
And for the first time ever, the writing of a Torah scroll was commenced at the European Parliament.
A table was covered, parchment, inkstand and quill were produced, and Metzger was given the honor of writing the first letter of Genesis.
“They do holy work,” the Israeli chief rabbi said of the RCE. “They help many rabbis in small communities with what they can’t manage on their own, in issues such as circumcisions, conversions, maintaining ritual baths. If a rabbi can’t deal with a problem on his own, there is a forum of rabbis providing assistance.”
Since its inception a decade ago, and with the growth of its influence, the rabbinical organization has gradually broadened the extent of its activities, and is increasingly present in the European political sphere to represent the Jewish community’s interests.
“There are many current threats to the future of European Jewry, and unfortunately few have identified the root causes,” RCE’s deputy director Rabbi Arye Goldberg said ahead of the conference, noting the rise of anti-Semitism, especially from Muslim extremists, and the attempts to ban or curtail Jewish practices like shechita (ritual slaughter).
“It is vital that we hold consultations on these matters in the presence of the European political leadership,” he said.
SHECHITA WAS one of the most burning issues on the agenda at a meeting in Brussels last month between Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip and the RCE leadership. Among those present were Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of London’s Mill Hill congregation, who chairs the Rabbinical Council of the UK and who is believed to be a leading candidate to succeed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as Britain’s chief rabbi; Holland Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs; and Rabbi Gershon M. Garelik, founder of the RCE. The meeting was a warm follow-up to a December encounter between the sides that took place in Estonia.
At the May meeting, Ansip heard the concerns of the Jewish leaders over impending EU legislation that included a clause requiring kosher meat to be marked as such, a move feared to have dramatic financial repercussions on the kosher food industry.
Ansip said he would do what he could to convince his colleagues in the European Parliament to vote against it. The clause has since been removed from the bill.
That meeting took place in the EU Jewish Building, nestled in the heart of the body’s institutions and created as a business center for Jewish groups operating in the EU nerve center. The building offers full office services, and is seen as another way to bring Jews together.
The European Synagogue, Ohel Eliezer, is also part of the complex, and hosts the disproportionately large number of Jews employed at the EU, as well as those traveling through the area. Below the synagogue is the European Jewish Library, with 5,000 books either by or about Jews.
Besides the RCE members, Estonian and Israeli diplomats and local Jewish lay leadership, a number of young rabbis leading organizations founded by Rabbi Moshe Garelik – son of the RCE founder – were also part of last month’s meeting.
There was Rabbi Sholom Liberow of the European Jewish Study Network, which provides tools for adult education and lets smaller Jewish communities “feel like they are part of a European Jewish community,” he said. Some 60 communities around Europe currently take part in the activities, which include local learning sessions and video conference lessons in a growing network.
“While Jews are still here, we must assist them in any possible way,” said Liberow.
Rabbi Zev Ives runs the European Center for Jewish Students (ECJS), another Brussels-based organization that brings Jewish students from across the continent together by creating social events.
“Intermarriage is high, especially in Eastern Europe,” Ives explained. The events, including weekend retreats and parties, draw a varied crowd from secular to modern Orthodox Jews, and constitutes “the biggest, most active Jewish student group in Europe,” he noted.
Rabbi Avi Tawil is the head of the European Jewish Community Center, which, he said, has been “bringing awareness of Jewish culture to European institutions” for the past seven years.
“We want the European politicians to be more aware,” explained Tawil, and to that end, his group marks Jewish holidays with the lawmakers, as well as initiating art exhibits, cultural and educational events in the European institutions. “We want to bring the positive issues to the front,” he said.
Chani Margolin, director of CHANA – European Jewish Forum for Women, describes her organization as striving “to strengthen the female-Jewish power in Europe.”
“We identified a group of women who are local leaders – they might be instrumental in women’s groups, or Chabad emissaries, or school principals – women who have an effect on others, and bring them together for activities and meetings. That way we reach the broader circle of people,” she explained.
Women’s power, she said, is “realizing the entire potential in female attributes, thus influencing Jewish identity, character and education.”
Raising a family while being active in the community as an emissary, or shlucha, is something Margolin always knew she wanted. The dual demanding roles are not easy, but she knows she and the other Chabad women are capable of enduring the challenge, since the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson believed they were.
“The Rebbe did not let us have it easy,” she said with a smile.
Though the RCE’s founders and senior members are from the Chabad movement, it is not an official Chabad body. And while the young leaders of the aforementioned organizations are not Chabad emissaries per se, dispatched by the movement’s New York center, they are all Lubavitcher Hassidim whose endeavors are a manifestation of Schneerson’s directive to go and help Jews wherever in the world they might be.
HOWEVER, THE RCE’s increasing political involvement, such as the meeting with Ansip, has recently been a cause of some discontent among other European Jews. It is problematic, critics say, that these groups portray themselves as representatives of the Jewish people at the EU institutions and other places, while their opinions are representative of a minority in the actual European communities.
RCE director-general Rabbi Menachem Margolin – husband of CHANA’s Chani Margolin – brushes away this criticism.
“Whoever has such problems is welcome to form their own organization,” he said. “There are hundreds of important goals for Jews around the world.
Whoever wants to do something should just do it.”
He noted that “the notion of all Jews bearing responsibility for one another is a Torah directive, and that is where we come from. We never got in the way of another organization’s actions.” Lamenting that “the Jewish people is unfortunately driven by many opinions; there are those who won’t share a table with Jews with different opinion,” he nonetheless asserted that it was “not right to have one organization that represents everyone” and encouraged a proliferation of such groups.
“Our founding premise,” said Margolin, “was that there are organizations that help Jews, but none that help Jewish communities in Europe to live in security, enjoy activities and ensure that every Jew in Europe can feel at home. After 10 years, people got used to turning to us for help, individuals and communities. At first, we were not involved in political issues. But if you want somebody who gets things done, you turn to us.”