Eastern European Jewry Awakens

Fifteen years after the collapse of the Communist regimes, Jewish life in Eastern Europe is re-emerging, mostly through the active leadership of the younger generations.

As opposed to pessimistic predictions vis-a-vis the future of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, it turns out that Jewish life exists in the countries of Eastern Europe. In some cases, there has even been a genuine reawakening, distinguished by the participation of a new, young generation in communal frameworks.

The most prominent phenomenon among Jews following the fall of Communism and the opening of the gates in Eastern European countries is the "coming out of the closet" and the joining in community activity. In a process that may be described as a "Jewish Marshall Plan" - similar to the aid that the U.S. funneled to Western Europe after World War II - Jewish organizations, primarily the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and several philanthropic foundations led by the Lauder Foundation allocated aid to communities in Eastern Europe in the form of material and human resources.

The activity, which in most cases was uncoordinated, and at times caused awkward competition, also vexed Israeli bodies, chiefly the Jewish Agency, which wanted activity among Eastern European Jews to concentrate on encouraging them to immigrate to Israel. Paradoxically, as also occurs in the activities of Western countries, some of the immigration and Jewish education emissaries helped to strengthen the local communal infrastructure and enhance the identity of the new members of the community. Some activists received training in Israel or returned to their communities following unsuccessful attempts at immigration.

After 50 years of war, Holocaust and life under the totalitarian Communist regime, it was difficult to find Jewish leaders - or even Jews with strong Jewish identity - in Eastern Europe. The Jews, most of whom had completely assimilated, lived in dictatorial states, satellites of Moscow that cast terror on their citizens, banned Jewish education and usually practiced a pronounced anti-Semitic policy.

Visits by Jews including some Israelis to Eastern Europe during the Communist era were depressing, provoking pity among the visitors who encountered the unfortunate state of the communities. The collapse of Communism hurt the "official" leadership of the communities, and was attended by sharp criticism of many community leaders and rabbis. Some of them were compelled to leave their posts, after being accused of collaborating with representatives of the regime, including informing on members of the communities.

However, after 15 years under democratic regimes, a more complex and encouraging picture emerges. The resentment and suspicion that characterized the attitude toward some of the Jewish leaders who remained from the Communist period have been supplanted by understanding, and appreciation of their success in keeping the ember of Jewish continuity under the difficult conditions behind the Iron Curtain.

A lengthy survey of the renewed Jewish life in Eastern Europe that was published last week by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency highlighted the role of young people from the post-Communist generation, who are taking an active part in communal leadership. There is something refreshing and even enviable in the young leadership that presents a pluralistic conception of Jewish life, but emphasizes the need for study of the Jewish tradition combined with synagogue activity and a constant maintenance of active identity, as opposed to Jews in Israel or in the United States.

Dorota Zielinska, 27, from Warsaw, relates that it was not until fairly recently that she learned of her Jewish identity on her mother's side, and how she is dealing with the anti-Semitic comments of her paternal grandfather. Dorota has already run a summer camp for Jewish youth and opened a Jewish Sunday school, and is now Sabbath observant in order to impart a more stable identity to her four-year-old daughter.

Another example is Adam Schoenberger, 25, who heads the Marom youth movement of the traditional community in Budapest, which tries to draw young people through Jewish theater, Hebrew hip-hop music and a web magazine called "Pilpul." The deputy head of the community in Bulgaria, Alexander Oscar, 27, may be part of the establishment, but presents a dynamic policy vis-a-vis Jews in all of the Balkan states, with the declared objective of widening the circle of arranged marriages in order to ensure the establishment of more Jewish families.

Sandra Levi, 25, left Serbia in 1999, but returned after completing a BA at Hebrew University and studying Hebrew and Judaism. Sandra, who dreams of setting up a school or at least a Jewish kindergarten, speaks of the challenge that is updated to a contemporary Zionism, and claims that she feels more European and more Jewish in Belgrade than in Israel. In Belgrade, where definition of identity requires proof, she is meticulous about going to synagogue each Sabbath, something she was not required to do in Israel.