Two hundred Jews live in Macedonia, a tiny Balkan country formerly part of Yugoslavia that managed to emerge relatively unscathed from the various Balkan conflicts of the past two decades.
With so few self-identifying Jews scattered in a population of over two million, complete disappearance through assimilation “is an immediate existential threat, not a ‘problem,’ as in England or France,” according to Arie Zuckerman, general director of the European Jewish Fund and a close adviser of European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor.
The tiny Jewish enclaves in Europe, most of them in the formerly communist East, make up some 20 distinct Jewish communities and identities each constituting fewer than 5,000 members. Some, such as Slovenia, might have as few as 100.
Now, European Jewry’s umbrella organization has launched a massive new initiative, conceived and spearheaded by Kantor, to preserve and strengthen these tiny remnants through unprecedented political support and new cultural initiatives.
According to Zuckerman, the new strategy marks “a very serious change” for the EJC, which has focused under its previous president, French businessman Pierre Besnainou, on Jewish advocacy to European Union institutions, and under Kantor on a Europe-wide campaign against the Iranian nuclear program and anti-Semitism.
“Of course, we’re continuing with these issues,” says Zuckerman, “but the small communities need us much more than [the large communities in] England or France, who don’t need an umbrella organization to gain access to their national leadership.”
Last week, the EJC leadership was in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, for the installation ceremony of Macedonia’s first rabbi since World War II, Rabbi Avi Kozmas, a Macedonian Jew in his thirties who just returned from studying at Jerusalem’s Sephardi Yeshiva.
The EJC also held high-level meetings with, among others, the president, prime minister and president of the parliament of the country, taking the local community’s leaders, including its new rabbi, to the meetings. A month earlier they performed the same role in tiny Slovenia.
“For the head of the community here [in Macedonia], it’s the only time he’ll have access to his national leader,” explains Zuckerman. “It’s also a question of self-respect and identity in those small places where the community is fragile. As a small community they tend not to emphasize their distinctiveness. When Kantor and the leadership comes, they’re suddenly not a tiny minority but part of a large European Jewry,” whose population the EJC perhaps generously estimates at 2.5 million members. “It puts the local leadership in a very different light.”
Indeed, meeting international Jewish activists elicited warm statements of support from Macedonia’s political leaders. In a closed-door meeting with Macedonia’s president, the Jewish leaders, European and local, heard his hopes that the community will grow through the return of Macedonian Jews and their descendants now living in Israel. “He wants more Jewish cultural and religious life in this country,” one of the Jewish leaders said coming out of the meeting.
Alone, the local Jewish community has little to offer its political leadership in order to gain a place on the political agenda. But the Europe-wide umbrella institutions are seen by Macedonian political leaders as a real asset in the country’s campaign for closer ties with the EU and other international frameworks. The connection offers the community leverage in its own efforts on issues such as restitution or recognition of its institutions.
But the EJC’s new focus on the small communities goes beyond enhancing their political stature. It also focuses on the softer question of culture, identity and pride.
“There may be four times the number of assimilated Jews in these countries than we know about,” believes Zuckerman. “But who wants to connect to a community whose heritage is overwhelmingly one of destruction? Now, imagine what would happen if they suddenly discovered that it’s really a heritage of creation and creativity, that their cultural heroes are Jewish.”
For this purpose, to find and keep European Jews by making Jewish identity “cool,” the EJC launched Project LINK, to be headed by Kantor’s son Zev. The project is an attempt to bring world-renowned “cultural heroes,” scientists, singers, athletes and the like who happen to be Jewish to connect with European Jewish youth through Internet forums and video-conferences.
“This is very close to my heart, a family responsibility,” Kantor says with a smile, promising the project will be groundbreaking. “Shouldn’t great Jews in Israel be well-known to American Jewish youth? It’s unifying the nation, creating a Jewish GPS, a ‘Jewish Positioning System.'”
The first step is a gallery of 100 top personalities, explains Kantor, “who will share with young Jews their formula for success, and young Jews will learn that Judaism and success are not mutually exclusive.” Meeting such figures is also meant to offer young European Jews a source of pride to counteract what EJC officials say is a latent but pervasive anti-Semitism on that continent.
“We measure anti-Semitism by counting violent incidents,” says Zuckerman, “but we can’t measure the number of people who simply choose not to relate as Jews because they don’t want to deal with the social repercussions.” The program also seeks to mainstream Jewish culture, setting the American experience as a model.
“Ask Seinfeld if he got the confidence to talk about his Judaism constantly on TV from AIPAC, or Spielberg if a Jewish organization got him to make Schindler’s List. They’ll tell you, ‘of course not,'” believes Zuckerman. Their work was enabled not by politics, but by “education and identity and culture.”