Widespread assimilation is the greatest threat to Jewish existence in Europe, the continent’s top rabbis concluded at their meeting in Paris last week, calling for a return to traditional Jewish family values and major rabbinical intervention.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, party organizers Absolut-Events brings together well-to-do secular European single Jews for festivities at exotic locations.
So who has the best approach? And is assimilation of European Jewry inevitable?
“We need to keep the Jewish flame alive,” said Serg Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, which represents the 42 largest Jewish communities in Europe.
“No one has the answer to the vast question of assimilation. It is a question with multiple right answers,” including community strengthening on the part of the Orthodox rabbinate, Jewish education, secular identification with Israel, and membership in Jewish social clubs, Cwajgenbaum said.
The Rabbinical Center of Europe’s three-day conference exploring the surging assimilation’s impact on the Jewish future ended on Wednesday. More than 300 rabbis attended the meeting, in which they studied how to approach issues including assimilation, anti-Semitism, terrorism, civil laws dealing with kosher slaughter in the face of recent European Commission inquiries, verification of Jewish identity with official documentation in Russia, and lay topics confronting Jews such as drug abuse and couples’ counseling.
Israeli Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger spoke at the conference and discussed the threats of assimilation and secularization in Israel, opening the discussion on civil marriage as a potential solution.
Assimilation is “the greatest threat to the Jewish people today, more so than anti-Semitism and terrorism. It is extremely painful to accept as fact that precisely the continent in which the Jewish nation lost a third of its population [in the Holocaust], poses a hazard of a different type, [and] the danger of acculturation and assimilation obstruct its natural growth,” said Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who is also chairman of the Yad Vashem council and a former chief rabbi of Israel.
Many rabbis said they were witnessing Jewish communities disappearing altogether, the Rabbinical Center of Europe said.
“Only a return to Jewish family values in a modern context will stem the flow,” the Rabbinical Center declared.
This focus on Jewish family and ritual should be inspired directly by the rabbinate, unequivocally “the leaders of Jewish communities in Europe,” Rabbinical Center spokesman Asher Gold said.
Gold acknowledged, however, that “we need also to attract young people to Judaism in new ways.”
Europe’s young Jews seem to be attracted to activities distant from the traditional emphasis on family values.
On the opening page of the Absolut-Events Web site, glitzy dance music jams in the background as a silhouetted couple dances on a bright pink backdrop. It reads, “Where fun is an absolut must.”
Its Web pages are filled with sleek invitations to parties and magazine-style write-ups and photos of past events.
Without an overt emphasis on Jewish ritual and practice, these events, including seasonal “Jewish Beach Club” and “Jewish European Ball” events, provide a forum for young secular Jews to associate. Jewish Beach Club events attract about 300 participants, with Jewish European Ball events drawing around 1,500.
“From experiences in our youth, we found that Jewish event were never as good and luxurious as other events,” said Ariela Gluck, owner of Absolut-Events, explaining her inspiration to create these events with an upscale, secular feel.
While Absolut-Events organized traditional Shabbats, what they offered was “not the typical Jewish kosher food that looks a bit old with no colour or taste,” Gluck explained, emphasizing their chic secular approach.
Combatting Jewish assimilation “was for sure one of the goals when I started the company,” she said. “At least it is a small step to bring Jewish people closer in a nice and relaxed surrounding.”
“It’s important in every community that the youth has enough exciting programs within the community,” said Gluck, “so they don’t have to go and look for partners elsewhere or even for entertainment.”
Since the company started 10 years ago, 35 couples had married after meeting via Absolut-Events, “a great achievement,” Gluck said.
“The goal is to bring young Jews together, even if Jewish values are not the top of the agenda,” Cwajgenbaum said with approval. “Judaism is an eternal flame which needs to be maintained. Something like Absolut-Events that ignites this flame needs to be promoted and welcomed.”