Mixed news for the Jews in Europe

A ‘renaissance’ in Jewish life in the East, while threats to circumcision and shechita rise.

cows 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cows 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 beards.
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.
Still, 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 communities.”
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 communal life.
“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 build mikvaot [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 legislation.
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 freedoms.”
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.
Rabbi Tyson 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 Poland.”
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 shrugged.
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 extent.
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 lost.”