Are we committed to ensuring a Jewish future in Europe; and if so, how?

Today, with just 1.3 million Jewish inhabitants, it is home to less than 10% compared to 1939 when it was home to 60% of the global Jewish population.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose anti-Semitism, in Parliament Square in London, Britain, March 26, 2018. (photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)
Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose anti-Semitism, in Parliament Square in London, Britain, March 26, 2018.
 There are 60% fewer Jews in Europe today than there were 50 years ago. Let that sink in. This is just one of many alarming statistics set out in the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s new report, entitled “Jews in Europe at the turn of the Millennium”, providing a comprehensive analysis of the current state of European Jewry and in turn, a worrying projection of its future. The report notes that in 1939, Europe was home to almost 60% of the world’s Jewish population, and today, with just 1.3 million Jewish inhabitants, it is home to less than 10%. The question now is: Are we committed to ensuring a Jewish future in Europe; and if so, what are we going to do about it?
Never one for believing in coincidences, I noted that the publication of the report coincided with the 82nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, perhaps the most infamous pogrom against Germany’s Jews. Jewish homes, synagogues, hospitals, schools and businesses were destroyed, and the event, oft referred to as “the beginning of the Holocaust”, marked the turning of the tide against the Jewish people of Europe. For many years, I have been gathering testimonies from Holocaust survivors, often only briefly covering the period of decline of the Jewish people in Europe which culminated in Kristallnacht, and instead focusing my attention on the later horrors of the Holocaust with a view to extracting that essential message of “hope” and “survival”. Perhaps, now 82 years on, and with a picture of decline once again writ large for European Jewry, we should reexamine those precious early testimonies to extract the lessons to help strengthen our communities and hopefully, arrest the decline.
In the winter of 1933, my German-born grandfather found his law practice in central Berlin destroyed by Nazi thugs. This event proved an unlikely gift for my family; with my grandfather using his good sense to realize that Jews were no longer welcome, and spurring him to leave Germany with his family. My other grandfather also had the good fortune in leaving Poland before the Nazis torched the main shul in their home town of Tarnow, Galicia on the first anniversary of Kristallnacht. I have stood by the remnants of that shul many times, accompanying groups of young Jews on educational journeys through Europe and have often found myself wondering: What if either of my grandfathers had not left when they did?
Kristallnacht acts as an annual ghost, reminding us of the story of decline and urging us to take our future in to our hands. We need to be asking ourselves how best to ensure the survival of our precious community in Europe. There is no doubt that there is a considerable amount of work to be done and it now needs to be the focus of our attention. Educational organizations, schools, communities and centers must refocus their energy on inspiring and educating younger generations. We must use the gift of survivor testimonies and apply their words of wisdom when committing ourselves to preserving and invigorating the Jewish community. As a Jewish nation, we must not accept, that 82 years later, there is still a question over our future. 
A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of meeting with survivor Mr. Jakob Sanger, who was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1924 and is now aged 96. His testimony, unlike many others who I have had the privilege to hear and learn from, began with Kristallnacht. Then aged 14, Jakob awoke to find his synagogue burned down, with his tallit and tefillin inside. Hurrying home, Jakob found a mob of 300 Nazi thugs destroying the yeshiva next to his house. The yeshiva’s sacred books and Sifrei Torah were torn and set alight. Jakob’s home was next in the path of destruction. The humble flat where he lived with his parents and brothers was ransacked, room by room. One room was miraculously overlooked: the one which happened to hide a Sefer Torah. When I reflected on this moving encounter, it struck me that I want to impress upon the younger generation that these testimonies are not just powerful stories, nor are they merely first-hand witness statements to history; they are our shared heritage of foundational lessons and experiences which we can use to honor and remember the heroes of the past, and just as importantly, to ensure our Jewish future.
Jakob’s personal experience of that night 82 years ago is echoed in my own experience while acting as the presiding rabbi of a shul in London that was the victim of an antisemitic arson attack one Shabbat morning in June 2006. I shall never forget the scene as I was hurriedly ushered through the charred and blackened debris of the torched building to the sanctuary, where the Sifrei Torah lay strewn on the floor. A million jumbled thoughts and emotions raced through my mind as I carefully cradled two halves of a Sefer Torah which had been thrown to the ground, until I noticed the dedication: in loving memory of a young mother who had tragically passed away just a few years before. The language of antisemitism may have evolved with subtlety and nuance, but even in the 21st century, here was a clear reminder that modern thugs still seek to burn our places of worship, destroy our holy texts, and desecrate all that is important to us. The writing was on the wall. Another tide was indeed turning. 
ONE OF the first people who came to see us after that attack was Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The personal legacy I received from Rabbi Sacks that day is one I have carried with me ever since; he told me: “Kaasher Yeanu Oto – Ken Yirbe Vechen Yifrotz. As they afflicted us in Egypt, so, proportionately we multiplied and expanded! Naftali, I adjure you today that our only response to such destruction, is to build – stronger, bigger and better than ever before!” I am devastated by the tragic passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, one of the greatest leaders of modern times and truly a giant among men. He possessed the unique ability to combine high intellect with penetrating emotion, heartfelt humanity and care for all. With the loss of Rabbi Sacks’s singular guidance and support, it will be hard to build “stronger, bigger and better,” but I know that he would tell us that it is our duty to never stop trying and that it is not the individual endeavor, but rather all about the Jewish future that we can build together.
As we mark another anniversary of Kristallnacht, I am acutely aware that we have fewer survivors and fewer leaders to learn from and the generations to come may struggle to make a deep and personal connection to the lessons of the Holocaust. Without altering the approach we take in educating our younger generations, we leave ourselves at risk of creating a limited world for our future generations.
Now is the time to make the transition from respectful silence, proclamations and memorials, to a period of expression, of education, and of commitment, to ensure that our younger generations embrace their history, engage with their present and energetically throw themselves into embracing and molding their Jewish futures. 
The writer is founder of JRoots; and chief executive of Jewish Futures.