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European Jewish leaders

Share their Troubles

By DINAH A. SPRITZER

JTA  -  Canadian Jewish News

March 1, 2006

PRAGUE - Hans Vuijsje, general director of the Jewish Social Work Foundation in the Netherlands, is worried about the nursing home he runs.

"We don't have enough Jews, so we fill the home with non-Jews," he said. "It's a matter of money. So how do we keep the nursing home Jewish with a declining Jewish population?"

Vuijsje was sounding off to an audience of 34 other European Jewish leaders of communities and organizations who spent three days recently contemplating the obstacles they face, from the high cost of kosher food in eastern Europe to the record number of French Jews making aliyah.
The First Forum of Directors, put on by the European Council of Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was intended to improve participants' fundraising and management skills. The forum also provided a snapshot of difficulties faced by beleaguered executives who were thrilled to hear they were not alone.
Daniel Koverman, leader of the 1,000-member Malmo community in Sweden, noted a challenge many European Jewish leaders face. "More than 65 per cent of our members are over 65 and the younger ones are disappearing to Stockholm, Gotenberg or Israel. For every Jewish birth, we have 30 deaths per year," he said.
Koverman's lament resounded with Petr Papousek, who heads a community of only 150 in Olomouc, Czech Republic. "There are at least 10 young Jews in Olomouc that are not members of the community," he said.
Alex Sivan, executive director of Fedrom, the Romanian umbrella organization that includes about 10,000 Jews, offered some inspiration. "We opened computer classes because young people in Romania can't afford the computers. The average monthly is wage is $95 (US). Let me tell you, we have attracted lots of young people."
The intermarriage rate in Europe is on average 50 per cent to 70 per cent, and much higher in eastern Europe.
A divisive issue among European Jewry is how to accommodate, or exclude, mixed families.
Lina Filiba, executive vice-president of the Jewish Community of Istanbul, provoked a stir among forum attendees when she said that her community actively seeks to involve non-Jewish spouses in community life by offering "neutral programs that they can feel comfortable participating in."
In Helsinki, couples that include a non-Jewish mother can get their children into a Jewish school and the community as long as they sign a document that promises the children will convert at the same time as having a bar or bat mitzah. But in Italy, such conversions were banned a few years ago, leaving some families with Jewish and non-Jewish siblings.
Andrej Zozula, executive director of the Polish Union of Religious Communities, said in Poland "finding anyone who is not in a mixed marriage" is a problem.
Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, noted an increasing number of conflicts that were dividing European communities, some having to do with orthodoxy, some with the rise of Chabad. "We as institutions have to take a some kind of stance on this challenge," he said.
Kraus outlined challenges that were particularly resonant for Jews in eastern Europe, such as who would care for all their cemeteries and synagogues. "Do we invest in stones or in people?" he asked.
Poland's Zozula spoke of the difficult task of caring for 1,300 Jewish cemeteries.
Romania's Sivan said that every year he gets "a bunch of people in their 70s walking into the community for the first time, quietly admitting that they are Jewish, so they can be buried in a Jewish cemetery.'