Stockholm Institute Forges New Leaders For European Jewry

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A series of animated films about the Kabalist Rabbi Nachman from Breslov, a plan to open Jewish yoga centers across Europe and a Know-Your-Body program based on Jewish tradition.

These are some of the ideas presented last week by participants in Project Incubator, a three-year-old program at Paideia – the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden.

The 10-day summer project was established in Stockholm three years ago out of concern for the future of European Jewry.

Yelena Krasilshchik and Marcus J. Freed are both European Jews. They both participated in the European Jewish Fund’s Project Incubator and they both see themselves as leaders within their local Jewish communities. However, they have little else in common.

Krasilshchik, 46, a mother of two from Kostroma, Russia, discovered her Judaism in 1996; Freed was born and raised in Britain’s strong Jewish community and within London’s free civic society.

Despite their tremendous cultural differences, they came up with similar final projects for the program.

Thus, Krasilshchik’s project aims to link Russian Jewish women to their roots by offering solutions to medical and physical problems via an educational program that leans on Jewish texts. The project’s final goal is to empower Jewish women and have them take control of their lives, bodies and souls.

Freed, 33, came up with a similar idea that aims at the market for chic “physical spirituality” based on Judaism.

However, his project, called Bibliyoga®, is more of a commercial start-up than a nonprofit project, and it offers physical meditation through classic Jewish texts to complete the spirituality that is obtained via Jewish tradition.

Freed’s plan includes opening Bibliyoga centers across Europe, coaching instructors while dedicating extra resources to the weaker communities in the East.

It was clear that Freed was well aware of the financial and communal potential of his project, while Krasilshchik seemed far behind, business-wise.

This project brings together Eastern and Western European Jewish activists who have the potential to become entrepreneurs and lead communal projects.

The Chais Family Foundation, the LA Pincus Fund for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, the Jewish Agency and the Pratt Foundation-NGO Empowerment Program joined forces with Paideia for the project.

The program teaches management and business skills including how to raise money for projects and how to polish up initiatives before the real test – pitching for sponsors.

Approximately 2.5 million Jews live in Europe, many in established, strong communities such as the UK and France, but the majority of them are unaffiliated, it is thought due to the fact that they live in new or small communities that lack inspiring leadership, resources or both.

Dr. Moshe Kantor, a Russian businessman who is chairman of the European Jewish Fund and president of the European Jewish Congress, the Russian Jewish Congress and the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, established Paideia in Stockholm seven years ago.

The institute, which works under the direction of the fund and the European Jewish Congress, runs a one-year program that prepares participants for a career of service in Jewish communities.

Toward the end of the 10-day program, Incubator participants are asked to polish up their original projects with the guidance of experts from the Pratt Foundation’s Pradler NGO-Empowerment Program.

“The EJF [European Jewish Fund] and the projects it supports such as Paideia University’s one-year program or the Incubator Project were designed to promise the future of the Jewry in Europe, East and West, and to make sure that a young generation of leadership will take over the reins and find ways to partner unaffiliated Jews as well,” said Arie Zuckerman, secretary-general of fund.

Jews living in Western European countries often feel there is no reason for them to be active in their communities as long as everything in their lives is going well.

In Eastern European countries, where Jews grew up on the perception that it is “not good” to emphasize their Judaism, the challenge is more serious, Zuckerman said.

Both the 10-day and the year programs attract dozens of people of all ages. The projects they come up with, inspiring or not, have one important by-product – a long-term commitment to their communities.

American-Israeli educator Barbara Spectre, the founding director of Paideia, describes the response to these projects as “dis-assimilation,” a term she coined during her seven-year acquaintance with European Jewry.

We get people to feel that they can be the people making the difference, Spectre said. “The people who come to Paideia are truly Jewish people by choice. This is the fate they had chosen,” she said.

There were significant differences between projects initiated by West European participants and their East European fellows in Project Incubator.

While the participants from richer countries came up with more chic and up-to-date projects, their colleagues from the East thought more basic and educational projects were needed in their communities.

On the last day of Project Incubator the new Jewish entrepreneurs pitched their projects to representatives of the partnering funds.

Dan Grosu, 40, from Bucharest, who is studying for a master’s degree in Political Science and Mathematics, managed to impress the potential investors with his proposal to start a program on the Holocaust and genocide for the Romanian educators to tackle the rising levels of anti-Semitism, racism and exclusion in Romanian society.

The fact that several organizations in Romania have already agreed to partner the project inspired the listeners even more and one of them, Jean-Jacques Wahl, a participant in the Incubator and a representative of The European Association for Jewish Culture, had already announced that this sort of thing was the kind of projects the association typically supports.

On the other hand, the project presented by Gyora Gal Glupczynski, 50, a Belgian-Israeli who creates animated films for a living, did not seem to draw much interest from the investors.

Gal Glupczynski proposes to create educational but fun-to-watch animated stories based on Breslov. He aims to create accessible Jewish content by animating familiar tales that include relevant moral values, and have them distributed, mostly via the Internet.

The investors liked the project, but they thought Gal Glupczynski had enough experience to breathe life into the project without their help.

“Some of the participants will succeed in raising money for their projects and others will raise [non-monetary] resources only,” Nirit Roessler from the Pratt Foundation’s Pradler Program said, explaining the dilemma the investors faced when a project was not purely nonprofit. “We teach them to think creatively and not to go overseas for every 500-euro project they want to carry out.”

The participants in Project Incubator understand that the decision to initiate a project within their communities turns them, whether they had planned it or not, into local Jewish leaders who have responsibilities.

“You don’t plan to become a leader,” Grosu said. “You go with the flow and if you end up in a situation that you can do something for your people, you just do it.”

Other Incubator participants had similar reactions.

Some of them come here with unconsolidated ideas while others have strong knowledge of their projects’ goals and how they can achieve them. Our mission is to assist these people in strengthening their Jewish communities, said Michal Elbaz, manager of the Europe Desk in the Jewish Agency’s Education Department.