New Self-Awareness in Young Jews

Der Standard (11/09/2006)

Marijana Miljkovic

The life of Jewish young people has many facets. Whereas there are those who emphasize the religious, others are involved with culture

Vienna – Time begins with the beginning of the world. According to the Jewish calendar, this happened exactly 5,767 years ago. Thus, Judaism has also existed as long as this, says Rafael Schwarz, religious director of the Israelite Jewish Community and also director of the Commission for Youth in Vienna. The reason is that one always has held to tradition. He then offers an explanation, reminding us of one’s own history and past.

Jewish life, lived consciously, is divided into various traditional, secular and religious Zionist directions, explain the four young people, who have taken upon themselves to introduce their organization on an evening in October.

Viewed as such, their organization is, as they see it and symbolically expressed, a small Diaspora. The reason being is that in Vienna there are five different youth groups which orient themselves either around school children, students or young professional Jews.

Oliver Kratz is in one of the three youth groups for the sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds, the Benei Akiva (Hebrew for “Children of Akivas”). Hashomer Hatzair (“The Youth Guard”) and Jad Be Jad (“Hand in Hand”) are the other two organizations which, however, are not very religious, explains the eighteen-year-old. He wears the Kipa, the skull cap of the religious Jews.

His group meets regularly on Saturday afternoon, and the topics which the young people bring to the table concern things which affect their daily lives. Nonetheless, it is the topic of religion and belief that is of primary discussion.

Prayer and Celebration
Their conversations about Jewish history and tradition are the main topics, particularly because many young people don’t know much about them. Together they pray and also celebrate. It can often be that these young people find themselves in no real religious surrounding; their parents celebrate, for example, none of the Jewish celebrations and don’t go to the synagogue.

That’s also one of the reasons given why some of them lack the confidence to go to the synagogue alone. “Celebrating the Sabbath with dinner on Friday, as with all other celebrations, only makes sense within the family,” explains Kratz. Therefore, those youths in whose families religious belief is not practiced are invited by other families so as to celebrate with them together. At the Laubhüttenfest it makes no sense to sit alone, says Kratz. “They should not feel alone in their own religion.”

The “Moadon” (Club), Daniela Kalmar’s group, speaks to the older ones, those already working, who also work with various network trends as well as organize projects, such as tours of the synagogues.

The Jewish high school students have a different program, tells Yvonne Feiger. It is not exclusively directed toward students and is cultural as well as political. Sometimes - and there they must laugh - they are also confronted with prejudice in their daily lives. Whether or not they get into discussions depends on whether the people are asking questions because they don’t know or are simply interested. An example: “Is it true that Jews have crooked noses,” or whether or not they often stir up controversy. “Such things are difficult to talk about,” and throw them off guard.

In Austria, there is a latent, “populist-type anti-Semitism,” said Schwarz. The Israeli conflict is one aspect which many people, who are not anti-Semites, see as a legitimate reason to say something against the Jews, he explained. But in contrast to their parent’s generation, who were intimidated by the persecution of the Jews during World War II, they confess to Judaism and stand to be much more open about their beliefs. “I sense that things are changing,” said Feiger. It is also a sign of a sense of self-awareness which stems from Simon Wiesenthal.

Remembering and warning of the crimes committed against the Jews is becoming more and more important, emphasizes Schwarz; nonetheless, it cannot be the work of the Jewish community to fight against anti-Semitism. “Sixty years ago six million Jews were killed. That didn’t happen during the Middle Ages; that happened yesterday,” he reminds one. Commemoration events should also be organized by other non-Jewish religious communities.