The roomful of artists, musicians and cultural leaders let their imaginations run wild.
Unencumbered by budgetary considerations or practical concerns, they dreamed up a theater partnership between Budapest and Bordeaux, a traveling photo exhibit on the idea of “kosher spaces” and a host of other ideas aimed at pooling the cultural capital of Europe’s Jewish communities.
Last month’s European Seminar on Jewish Culture and Innovation brought participants from more than a dozen European countries to this medieval city in Provence. The three-day conference was timed to coincide with Avignon’s famed monthlong summertime theater festival.
In efforts to strengthen European Jewish life, there in an increasing tendency to focus on niche appeals, said Mario Izcovich, director of pan-European programs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which co-sponsored the conference.
“This connects with the time we are living in,” Izcovich said of specialized conferences like the one in Avignon. “We have different niches and different targets and different interests, and that’s the way we now approach Jewish life.”
Participants in the seminar, the first of its kind, came from Jewish hubs like London, Budapest and Paris, but also from smaller communities like Zurich, Belgrade and Copenhagen. In addition to JCC professionals, representatives of more outside-the-box Jewish cultural initiatives were well represented in Avignon.
Judith Scheer, chairwoman of Salon Vienna, a monthly gathering that uses Jewish texts and themes as the basis for artistic exploration and philosophical discussion, spoke about the struggles she faced in getting the established Austrian Jewish community to acknowledge her group’s appeal.
Scheer said the focus should be on creating programs that engage unaffiliated members of the Jewish community. “The fed-up-ness is everywhere,” Scheer said, describing the alienation of young European Jews from their organized Jewish communities.
Edina Schon, the producer of Budapest’s Golem Theater, which specializes in avant-garde works, told the Avignon gathering about her unsuccessful campaigns to secure funding from her local organized community. But, she said, the upside is that it gives her theater company a greater degree of artistic freedom.
“We don’t have to stay with the old tradition,” Schon said. “I think our responsibility is to give the artist the freedom to create whatever he wants to create and not be afraid of the results.”
The fact that many of the seminar’s attendees were not Jewish communal professionals but rather from more independent, grass-roots initiatives was a positive aspect of the conference, Izcovich told the crowd.
“All over Europe what’s happening—what’s growing like ‘champignons’ everywhere,” Izcovich said, using the French word for “mushrooms,” “are Jewish initiatives that recognize that not everything needs to be provided by the formal Jewish community.”
Finding common ground across diverse Jewish communities was one of the seminar’s most important takeaways, said attendee Stefan Sablic, a cantor from the Serbian capital of Belgrade.
“The value is that you get inspired to work further,” Sablic said. “You’re not alone, and you can link to the others—there’s a whole world of Jewish people working on similar topics.”
Jette Zylber, who coordinates cultural programming for the Danish Jewish community, echoed his sentiments.
“A lot of energy is cooking now. It’s like being in a melting pot of new ideas,” she said. “Each of us has our fights in our community, but you realize this is equal for all of us.”
Avignon was just the first step for a campaign of niche conferences sponsored by the European Association of Jewish Community Centers. Next on the schedule is a weekend focusing on volunteering to be held in Brussels in December.
Smadar Bar-Akiva, executive director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers, said conferences that focus on what it means to be Jewish and European—and not just Jewish in a global sense—are key for strengthening communities across the continent.
“It’s very important that they feel there is a European cultural message,” she said. “Now the challenge is to continue the momentum.”