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These young Jews are optimistic about their future in Europe

  • JTAYoungJews
It’s a drizzly Saturday morning in May. Some 160 young Jews, mostly European and ranging from Orthodox to secular, have come to the Hotel Berlin to talk about everything under the sun. Well, almost.
by TOBY AXELROD | Jun 15, 2017

The upbeat, weekend-long event did not focus on anti-Semitism, the Holocaust or Israel, and thus the gathering reflected a shifting approach to Jewish continuity in Europe, 72 years after the end of the Second World War.

Under the theme "Our World in Transition", participants in Junction Annual - a three-year-old programme of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) - opened up a Pandora’s box of challenges young Jews in Western countries face.

Junction - an initiative that's aimed at the 25- to 40-year-old set - is one of the latest examples of a trend among Jewish organisations to let young adults determine their own agenda.

"Young adults have a tremendous amount to offer, and it's healthy for Judaism and for Jews, and I think many organisations know that," said Jonathan Schorsch, professor of history at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, who facilitated a discussion at the conference on "what it means to be ourselves in a multi-cultural world".

One thing the weekend's event made clear: Despite threats of terrorism and rising anti-Semitism, young European Jews aren’t ruled by fear. Most are not leaving for Israel - even if by and large they are Zionist. They’re staying.

This is Generation 3.0, the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors or of those who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, and they are now finding their voices. They are starting Jewish projects outside existing communal structures. European Jews - who number about 1,4 million - are no longer keeping a low profile. And they are getting support from the United Kingdom-based Rothschild Foundation and the US-based Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, along with other organisations that want to cultivate this spirit.

In Berlin, where the recent Junction event took place, Generation 3.0 includes people like Martin Schubert, 38, of Berlin, a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. He and his wife, Alisa Poplavskaya, are alumni of the Tevel b'Tzedek programme - a Jerusalem-based non-governmental organisation that brings Jewish volunteers from around the world to rural villages in Nepal and Burundi.

“It is always better to have an identity where your pride comes from having the power to help others, than from being the victim,” said Schubert, who, together with Poplavskaya, gave a couples coaching workshop at the conference.

Berlin graduate student Nataliya Pushkin, 26, recently became a host for Moishe House Without Walls - meaning she'll receive funding to create events for her Jewish peers, “from tikkun olam to social events, religious learning and holidays and festivities", she said.

“For us to go further as Jewish communities, we need the voices of younger people,” Lela Sadikario, the Milan-based director of Junction, told JTA.

“Younger people often roll between the cracks of the organised Jewish communities,” said Schorsch, who is starting a Jewish Activism Summer School at the University of Potsdam, in which Jewish millennials can focus on projects that help both non-Jews and Jews.

Schorsch said he hopes to bridge a gap between religious and secular Jewish identity. Jews seem to face a choice of “either or”, he said, when in fact you need both.

Sarah Eisenman, the New York-based director of JDC’s Entwine project, which seeks to engage those aged 24 to 36, said she wants “this generation to see Jewish global responsibility as a cornerstone of their identity”.

Entwine runs service work programmes with local partners, creating opportunities for volunteer work in Jewish communities in India, Argentina, Turkey, Hungary, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Israel and elsewhere.

The initiative got off the ground in 2012, after a JDC survey of Jewish young adults showed “volunteerism and the opportunity to have a direct impact” as their top interest, Eisenman said.

Through Entwine, “we can create this opportunity, and step back and get out of the way”, she added.

It’s a familiar mantra by now, and the Paris-based European Council on Jewish Communities has been repeating it, too. After a 2014 conference in London, the council urged “giving them (young people) greater power and independence in creating programmes which reflect their particular concerns and way of life”.

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