One Hundred Years of Hakoah - A Small, Vibrant Jewish Community

Die Presse (08/22/2009) 


Party at the Tel Aviv Beach, the Jewish club Hakoah celebrates its 100th anniversary and a new community center is built. Is Vienna’s Jewish community experiencing a renaissance? No. Many of the young people among its 7,500 members are leaving.  

Vienna – Marcello loves parties, every day, also on the Sabbath. “I party then too, unfortunately,“ he says with a slight sense of guilt and continues to sip his drink. It is quite normal to go out on a Friday evening.  

At the Tel Aviv Beach, the blue and white beach club situated on the Danube Canal (Donaukanal) is not only a place for many of the Viennese to meet this summer, whether Jewish or non-Jewish. It is also a place where young people, liberal Jews like Marcello happily celebrate in flipflops and beach garb behind large sun glasses. 

That is normal, Tel Aviv in the middle of Vienna. „“That also belongs to the renaissance felt by many Jews that one can be the way one wants to be,“ says Marcello’s friend, twenty-two year-old Philip Feyer. “Not every Jew wears a long black skirt.“  

One can encounter, however those who do wear a black skirt - namely the Orthodox Jews who are from Eastern Europe and have come to Vienna - merely a block away from Tel Aviv Beach in the section of Karmelitermarkt or districts where they live. A breath of Williamsburg - is this also a sign of an ever-growing vibrant Jewish Community? 

Also in Leopoldstadt, a few kilometers outside the city, there are signs of Community life, even if it is currently somewhat more bleak. Behind Prater, on the corner of Simon-Wiesenthal-Straße and Wehlistraße, just before the Danube and far from any inner city building a new Jewish center is coming into play. A school, a home for the elderly and a tenement have been built, and in marking the 100th anniversary of Jewish tradition in Vienna, Hakoah already will be constructed on the newly designated space. The Community is growing, at least when speaking of building sites. But can one speak of a renaissance? 

No, in terms of numbers, certainly not. Much more the contrary, says the Secretary General of the Jewish Community Vienna (IKG) Raimund Fastenbauer. Out of an estimated 10,000 – 15,000 of Jewish citizens residing in Vienna, many of whom are not religious, some 7,500 members presently belong to the Community. 

The Community‘s problem, says Fastenbauer, is that “we have educated and strengthened our children perhaps too well in regards to their Jewish identity. Through our school and contacts within the Community, they learn to want to lead a life like that offered by Israel, or London or New York, where there is a strong sense of belonging to a Jewish Community.“ Consequently, the problem arises - namely finding the right marriage partner in such a small Community like that of Vienna. Through international contacts made during their school or university years, many leave out of love and stay forever, never to return. 

As to the increase in the Jewish Community due to emigrants from Eastern Europe: Before 1938 and the Holocaust, there were more than 210,000 Jews living in Vienna. Some 1,000 survived the persecution by living in the underground or by marrying a non-Jew. After WW II some 4,000 survivors returned to Vienna. In contrast to Germany, there was never a genuine invitation or any concerted efforts toward taking back the former Austrians, said Fastenbauer. The Jewish Community has basically grown because of the large number of emigrants from Eastern Europe – Bucharian Jews from Usbekistan, Sephardic Jews from Georgia and Russian Jews. Almost one-third of today’s Jewish Community is made up of recent arrivals from the East. 

Great efforts were made by the Community to integrate these people; moreover, badly needed was an expansion of infrastructure in the way of additional prayer rooms for those having different rituals. Esra, originally created as service to Holocaust survivors in the way of psychological and social assistance, is involved today in helping newcomers with problems of integrating into their new surroundings of Central Europe. 

However today this increase of new members is on the wane due to the strict laws on foreigners, complains Raimund Fastenbauer. The only possibility of compensation due to the departure of many young people is that “we must speak to the smaller Eastern European Jewish Communities in the EU countries, who themselves are having difficulty surviving on their own. For them, Vienna might appear very interesting. Also, for that reason, the new Hakoah Center has been established,“ argues the Jewish Community’s Secretary General. It is there that school children, seniors and families can come to live and learn. 

The project is, however, not without debate within the Community itself. One hears from people that it is too grandiose for a Community of 7,500 members. It would create a new Jewish ghetto, far from the city. And it costs too much money. Ariel Muzicant, head of Vienna’s Jewish Community, had to turn to his Community members and ask for donations for the new social center. Lacking is a total sum of two-and-a-half million euros, and that alone for security measures.   

Nonetheless, Muzicant brushes aside the criticism: The Community needs a new and larger home for the elderly. There is already a waiting list of twenty-five people alone who urgently need a place in the current Home for Assisted Living with 145 beds, located on Bauernfeldgasse in the 19th district. “One has no idea how many people come to me about getting a bed. The need is increasing dramatically! For Pessach, we had to move beds into the offices,“ said Muzicant recently to the Jewish magazine, “Nu,“ when interviewed. The new Center is “also a place requiring re-socialization,“ claimed Muzicant. “There are so many lonely retirees, forced to the edges of society, who are once again allowed to experience a sense of Community. There they have a school, a kindergarten and housing, allowing them to again join together as a group. When someone brings his child to school, he will more likely also visit the center at the same time as the grandfather who is living there.“ 

As to politics at the beach: People enjoying the Tel Aviv Beach feel emotionally far, far removed from thoughts about a home for the elderly. Last week, for example, not only young people but also ambassadors and even the Mayor of Tel Aviv and his Viennese colleague, Michael Häupl, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the city on the Mediterranean.  

Is it a very usual bar at the beach? Well, not exactly. Even if it is celebrated in an atmosphere of international partying and the organizers avoid speaking about politics. “Here it‘s about Tel Aviv as a city, about Israeli lifestyle,“ said Nuriel Molcho, whose family is responsible for the foods sold. It mimics the beach modeled after Israel‘s beach. That’s important not only for the activists from Gaza Beach, who put up their tents at the beginning of the summer on the other side of the canal’s banks.“ The beach allows people to reflect on what they think about Israel or Tel Aviv.“ But nineteen year-old Marcello Demner answers, “Why should that concern me?“ 

It‘s true that some ten percent of the guests are Jews, and at special events, the percentage is higher,“ said Molcho, but certainly not everyone in the Community comes here to stick their feet here in the sand. Molcho claims that “it bothers the highly religious people that we are observing the Sabbath and are not eating kosher.“ With other Jewish Communities in Vienna, it is a bit more like with neighbors. One knows each other, one greets each other, of course. But, “we would not go together out on the town,“ says Marcello.  

One is primarily not a Jew. Viennese, Israeli, Austrian, Jew or even Italian? In Marcellos, Philips and Nuriel world, there are ultimate possibilities of identity and their sense of belonging is much more open. The three define being Jewish primarily as something cultural since they are not particularly religious. “Praying,“ says Philip, “gets on my nerves.“ Recently they attended some of the Jewish youth organizations and very soon lost their interest. All three of them went to international rather than Jewish schools. Their circle of friends are to a great extent non-Jewish. And yet, to all three of them, particular traditions are very important. For example, on certain holidays such as Jom Kippur, they go to the synagogue. Also marriage is a special matter. In any case, the wife should be Jewish, said Philip and Nuriel. Marcello tends not to think in such absolute terms, but then adds: “It would, however, be better.“ The point is that he is a single child, and the tradition of the Jewish family is at stake.