Conference of Rabbis Some Forty Chief Rabbis Received by Klestil

Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) (02/02/04)

The future of the new Jewish communities in Eastern- and Middle Europe is the focal point of a three-day conference of more than one hundred Chief Rabbis from throughout Europe in Vienna. Numerous Chief Rabbis visited Austrian Federal President Klestil.

More than forty Chief Rabbis participating at the conference were received by Austrian Federal President Thomas Klestil at the Hofburg. The Austrian Federal President emphasized in his address that the gathering is a sign "that Jews from all parts of the world are welcomed in Austria." Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, said that it is to be acknowledged what Austria is currently doing for its religious minorities, above all, for the Jews. Rabbi Metzger then proceeded to hand over the Holy Scriptures in a Hebrew-English version and blessed the President. Metzger is Israel’s Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi.

"The conference of the Rabbinical Center of Europe (RCE) took place at a time of special importance not only in the history of Europe but also in the history of European Judaism," said Federal President Klestil. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Jewish communities scattered throughout many countries on the European continent are being established upon new and hopeful foundations. "For the first time following years of oppression and persecution it is again possible to freely practice one’s belief and to maintain contact with other Jewish communities," said the Federal President. Also Vienna, which "escaped having to suffer under the yoke of Communism," has been able to profit from the opening up of the East, renewing long-buried relationships and traditions which seemed lost forever. "Particularly Jewish life has enormously influenced the cultural and intellectual life of our country. As scientists or musicians, poets or politicians, the Jews were integrated into Austrian society and contributed highly to forming Austrian identity," claimed the President.

Klestil "Never Again" is a Pillar of the Foundation

Nonetheless, the historical role of Jewish life in Austria cannot allow us to forget "that our country also took part in unforgettable crimes directed at the Jewish people: the Shoa. Over 60,000 Austria fellow countrymen of Jewish heritage were persecuted by the National Socialists, intimidated and murdered. To this day the loss of these people is a painful scar in Austria’s history." After the end of Nazi rule, a new, democratic, free and tolerant Austria emerged, to whose spiritual pillar in her foundation belongs a clear and often repeated "Never Again." One must, however, not close his eyes to the many countries in the world which are demonstrating a growth of anti-Semitism. Austria will decisively stand up against any form of anti-Semitism," promised Klestil. "There will be neither tolerance nor acceptance of prejudice shown toward Jewish fellow citizens."

Invited by Jewish Welcome Center

The Conference of Rabbis in Vienna met with the exclusion of the public and concerned itself mainly with the situation of the Jews in Eastern European countries. The Rabbinicial Center of Europe (RCE) invited the Jewish Welcome Service and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Other topics were those including education, questions of ethics and religious freedom. The topic, anti-Semitism was dealt with only peripherally by the Rabbis.

Award for Prodi

President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, was presented a humanitarian achievement award for his ongoing efforts to promote cultural dialogue and to protect the rights of minorities in Europe and the Jewish community in particular. Upon receiving the award, EC President Prodi offered a statement on the topic of anti-Semitism. After numerous Jewish organizations strongly criticized the EU Commission for a survey (whereby Israel was characterized as a threat to world peace), together with not having published a study on anti-Semitism conducted by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), Mr. Prodi’s appearance in Vienna was viewed as a gesture of reconciliation.

New Communities Emerged after 1989

Israel’s Chief Rabbi, Jona Metzger, also participated in the conference. According to Rabbi Jacob Biderman of Vienna, the rabbis gathered to seek ways to revive Jewish life in Eastern and Central European communities still recovering from the devastation of WW II and the repression suffered during the communist era. Apart from questions on security for Jews in Europe, discussion focused on the problems of religious practice and the integration of the Jews in the new Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.

Inauguration of the First Jewish Teacher’s Academy

Among the conference’s highlights was the inauguration of the first Jewish teacher’s academy in Vienna since World War II. The original school was burned down in 1938 on Kristallnacht - or the Night of Broken Glass - when synagogues were devastated throughout Nazi occupation. The school will train rabbis who will later be sent to former communist countries to help rebuild Jewish life there, said Viennese Rabbi, Jacob Biderman, one of the event’s organizers. The school is financed by the Austrian government and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.