Europe Today: A New Era for Jewish Life

Lubavitch News Service (02/08/04)

By Baila Olidort

Vienna – Traditional Jewish life is burgeoning in Europe. Whole Jewish communities who last saw the light of day in the 1940s are rising up from the ashes, it seems. Yeshivas, day schools, mikvehs, shuls and kosher markets are becoming fixtures once again in Vilna, Bucharest, Budapest, Minsk, Leningrad and scores of other cities known to most westerners only from documentaries of a vanished Jewish world.

In another milestone widely covered by major news organizations, a Jewish teachers academy was inaugurated in Vienna last week. The last such academy in Vienna was destroyed in 1938, on Kristallnacht. The inauguration coincided with a three-day convention of the Rabbinical Center of Europe, hosted at the Lauder Business School by Rabbi Jacob Biderman, director of Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Vienna.

Austria’s President Thomas Klestil, who met with rabbis of the convention at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, used the opportunity to emphasize Austria’s openness to a strong Jewish presence. Notwithstanding the rise in anti-Semitism in countries around the world, he said, “our get-together today is a signal that Jewish people from all over the world are welcome in Austria.” One elderly Jew who recalled growing up in Austria “scared to utter the word ‘Jew’,” said he had to rub his eyes at the sight of Israel’s Chief Rabbi laying his hands in blessing on Austria’s President. With the revival of Jewish life in this region comes a host of Jewish legal issues that need to be examined and decided. Some of them are particular to these demographics where Jewish ancestry is oftentimes difficult to ascertain – especially in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) where communism made it a liability to identify as Jewish. How do rabbis help one verify their Jewish lineage? What happens when there are no records to refer to? The issue is fraught with serious ramifications for the Jewish community, and was studied along with a wide range of other halakhic questions at the convention. Some 120 rabbinical leaders attending the conference benefited from presentations by leading rabbinical authorities on matters of medical ethics, the construction of mikvehs, and the installation of a community of eruv.

Among them were Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, rabbinical justices of the Jerusalem, London and Paris Beth Din, Rabbis Chaim Yehuda Rabinovitch, Chanoch Ehrentreu und Nissim Rebbibo, respectively. Also participating were Chief Rabbi of Antwerp, Dovid M. Lieberman, Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Ezriel Chaikin, and Dr. David J. Bleich of Yeshiva University in the United States, a leading authority on Jewish ethics.

But the convention weighed in with the world Jewish community for other reasons as well. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, flew from Brussels to Vienna to participate at the inauguration of the teachers academy. “There can never be another year like 1938 or another Kristallnacht in the Europe we are building,” he said to the delegation of rabbinic leaders and to the press. “We must keep a close watch on any manifestations of anti-Semitism. We must take firm action to put a stop to such phenomena and to protect all religious and cultural identities.

Mr. Prodi was also there to accept the RCE’s Humanitarian Achievement Award. “Given Mr. Prodi’s helpfulness and responsiveness to the concerns of the Jewish population of the European Union, we thought it an appropriate way to pay him tribute,” said Rabbi Moshe Garelik, Director of the RCE.

In his acceptance remarks, Mr. Prodi noted that he was particularly honored to receive the award on the Jewish calendar date of 10 Shevat – an important date in the annals of Chabad-Lubavitch history.

With hundreds of Chabad-Lubavitch representatives serving Jewish communities in Europe and the FSU, and many who participated at the convention, Chabad-Lubavitch is the leading catalyst in Europe’s Jewish revival.

The Rabbinical Center of Europe has its headquarters in Brussels and maintains contact with roughly 759 rabbinical leaders in Europe. “This is an organization with grass roots support working on behalf of Jewish communities in all of Europe,” said Rabbi Garelik. He explained that Vienna was chosen as the venue for this year’s convention because of its central location. “Until now the RCE has been operating primarily in Western Europe, but with the widespread growth of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, and with the ten new member countries from Eastern Europe slated to join the Union in the next few months, we expect to be focusing much of our efforts in that region as well.

In a closing statement issued by the RCE, it enumerated specific avenues of action on behalf of the region’s Jewish communities. Among these, the RCE pledged to facilitate the professional restoration of eighty torah scrolls pillaged and desecrated during the Nazi era, and restore them to communities of Europe in need of torah scrolls; to work, in conjunction with the Central Organization of Jewish Education – based at Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York – to send fifteen “roving” rabbis to service small Jewish communities in Germany, Scandinavia, Russia and the Ukraine; to expand social programs to assist needy families in Eastern Europe.

The RCE also resolved to appeal to the governments of Belarus and Turkey to address the needs of its religious minorities, and pledged to work with Germany’s local Jewish organizations in support of the country’s large immigrant Jewish population.