Growing European Judaism

Tomorrow (Sunday) I am off to Sweden to attend the 10th anniversary conference of an incredible institute, Paideia, The European Centre for Jewish Studies, where I was a fellow 9 years ago. The school was founded (if we're condensing the story) after the Swedish government found it had rather a lot of Nazi bullion in their vaults. They donated some of it to the Jewish community in Sweden, on condition that they didn’t set up another memorial, but found a way to invest it in the future of European Jewish life. For the last 10 years, 20 or so students every year, from all across Europe and Israel, have been given the opportunity to study with leading scholars, engaging with both our textual tradition and cultural expression to empower a new generation. A generation who are maintaining Jewish life and innovating in communities across Europe. I gained a huge amount from my year there, from incredible, enduring friendships, new ways of thinking and theologising, teachers I will never forget, and a sense of confidence in my own Judaism that allowed me to give back to Jewish life at home.
(Purim at Paideia in 2003 with Goshka from Poland and the Agi'ot from Hungary, and some strange English girl who loves her sari)

However some Israelis and Americans have been known to scoff at what they see as a ridiculous venture; why build a school in Europe which remains a graveyard, a place of memories?
On a recent trip to Prague I got chatting over shabbat dinner to a 16 year old American boy taking part in a programme called ‘Pilgrimage’. They were touring all over Europe, visiting several concentration and deportation camps, before going onto Israel. I asked him why this programme was important and he responded that we must remember. I pushed him a little further. What does that remembering do? ‘It helps us honour the dead, and remember why it’s important to be Jewish today’. I was troubled by the fact that a tour to places of mass murder should be billed as a religious pilgrimage, but more troubled that this murder would be the motive for anyone’s involvement in Jewish life. If there are no more vital reasons than that, we are in serious trouble as a community.
Yes, we absolutely must remember and honour all that was lost, so much potential never to be fulfilled, and our calendar has sanctified this memory and loss in Yom HaShoah. But, as I said to the young traveller, wouldn’t one or two camps be enough? Why so many? These memories and sites, as Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz puts it, are important for Europeans to engage with – they are a European problem, not a Jewish problem. It happened to the Jews, it is not why we are Jewish, and when we use these memories to create identity and community, it cheapens that memory. The loss of the Shoah is felt acutely by many of us, and it's a sad reality that we are slowly moving into a period when our children will not meet survivors. Their stories need to be heard and preserved, but not so they might inspire us to cling on to Judaism. There must be something more compelling in the Judaism we are handing on to the next generation – something vital and joyous if we want them to continue it.
Just as Paideia is doing, we need to empower the next generation of Jewish leaders, and more importantly community members, to know what their Judaism adds to their lives that is positive, meaningful, and empowering, because if there is only the memory of this immeasurable tragedy, each generation will have fewer and fewer reasons to pass Judaism on to the next generation. I would love to see shuls full on Simchat Torah and Purim rather than Yom Kippur and Yom HaShoah, reassuring me people are enjoying their Judaism, and that thus it has a future.
I think it was inspired that the Swedish government decided to invest in a Jewish future rather than in remembering the past, and by providing students with the confidence to engage with text and feel Jewishly literate as well as culturally Jewish, Paideia does a huge amount to ensure a future for European Jewry that is meaningful and positive. And in the meantime, I can't wait to hear what all the fellows have been up to around Europe over the last decade, and to kick start the new year for a new batch of fellows, including one of my own students, who I know will be making a huge contribution to Jewry somewhere in the world in the years to come (no pressure!)


  1. It is not just Jews who need to find something that adds to their lives, which is "positive, meaningful, and empowering". I think recent events show that we all do, the question is how do we set about it? For those of us with roots in the Christian tradition, how do we pass on what is good about religion and helpful to society when the Church so often seems irrelevant, hypocritical or morally bankrupt? Does Judaism have the same problems or can it teach the wider society some useful lessons?


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