May 10, 2011
Can umbrella groups hold Jewish Europe together?
Can umbrella organizations link Jews and Jewish institutions from Dublin to Dnepropetrovsk?
If so, what should be their form and focus? How should they be run? Who should fund them? Do such organizations even matter?
Recent upheavals in the acronymic world of pan-European Jewish institutions have raised these and other questions about the role and relevance of such umbrella groups.
The past six months have witnessed the near demise of one umbrella, the European Council of Jewish Communities, or ECJC; the launch of a new body, the European Jewish Union, which is run and financed by a Ukrainian billionaire; and a call from that union for a “European Jewish parliament,” whose form and function are yet to be defined.
“There’s a lot of confusion now,” said Annie Sacerdoti, a Milan-based Jewish leader. “It’s a time of passage, and we are waiting to see what happens.”
While few of these developments have had any real impact on ordinary Jews or day-to-day Jewish life in Europe, they are part of a larger story of the shifting face of Jewish Europe.
The ECJC is at the heart of the recent polemics.
Founded more than 40 years to promote Jewish culture, heritage, education and community building, the ECJC came to prominence following the fall of communism. Funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, it fostered links among Jewish communities in Western Europe and emerging new communities in the East.
The JDC cut funding, however, and in recent years financial shortfalls all but curtailed its operation.
Last November, outgoing ECJC president Jonathan Joseph thought he had found a solution: He unilaterally appointed a Ukrainian billionaire, Igor Kolomoisky, as his successor in exchange for the promise of millions of dollars in support.
But Joseph made the move without consulting the organization’s board, and a number of members quit in protest, with some decrying a “Soviet-style takeover.” Many balked at indications that Kolomoisky’s agenda would change the ECJC into a political organization focused more on Israel than the organization’s traditional mission.
The rejection took Kolomoisky and his allies by surprise, and ultimately they decided to walk away from the ECJC and form a new body, the European Jewish Union.
It’s not yet clear what the new group will do. The EJU says on its website that it’s “a structure uniting all Jewish communities and organizations throughout Western, Eastern and Central Europe.” But its makeup, membership and mode of operation are unclear. One source familiar with the operation described it as a “private foundation.”
The ECJC-EJU flap highlights the growing financial and demographic clout in Europe of Jews from Eastern European countries, and it has thrown into sharp relief differing models of how to foster Jewish life.
The EJU was launched in early April at a two-day conference held at the Euro Disney theme park outside Paris that turned into something of a brouhaha.
Organizers had billed the event as an ECJC conference devoted to Jewish education and youth, and envisioned it as a General Assembly-style gathering. They recruited Clive Lawton, a respected Jewish education consultant and co-founder of the Limmud movement, to plan the program for hundreds of young Jews brought in for the occasion, mainly from Germany, Ukraine and Russia.
But far more people signed up for spaces than were available, and communities that had been promised slots never got them. More than 100 people who paid had their participation canceled by the organization.
On top of that, several conference attendees told JTA that the educational content had been far overshadowed by a political agenda that took them by surprise. Rather than focusing on the ECJC’s traditional agenda, the conference culminated in the establishment of the EJU and included the endorsement of a vaguely defined European Jewish parliament to “speak and act on behalf of every Jew in Europe.”
Lawton told JTA that he feared the educational aspect had simply been “window dressing.”
One Western European Jewish student who attended the meeting but did not want to be identified by name said he felt manipulated.
“We had the sense that we were roped into endorsing something just by our presence,” the student said. “I had the sense that something was going on and that we were brought in there just to give it respectability.”
The next chapter in the saga will come May 29, when representatives from a host of countries meet in Paris to roll back the clock and “re-establish the ECJC as a democratic organization.”
“We want it to come back to life, to return to its democratic roots,” said one person involved in the relaunch but who did not want to be quoted by name. “We think there is a place for a Jewish organization that does not focus on politics but on community life.”
Whether this will work remains to be seen.
“Generally speaking, the practical impact of these roof organizations on Jewish life in Europe is not entirely clear,” said Rabbi Josh Spinner, CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which funds Jewish culture and education projects in Central and Eastern Europe.
“Local communities and national unions tend to go it alone, and individuals and institutions do find many ways to connect without needing the fulcrum of a pan-European unifier,” he said.
Still, Spinner added, there are issues that do need confronting across Europe. He cited recent attempts in several countries to limit or ban shechitah, or ritual slaughter.
“Perhaps stronger cooperation or a clearer definition of respective roles between the various pan-European Jewish roof organizations might better allow effectively dealing with such issues,” Spinner said.
The planned relaunch of the ECJC, Spinner said, represented “an opportunity for the partner organizations to clarify their goals and set a timetable for achieving them. I hope they use the opportunity to make the ECJC a highly relevant organization.”
Evan Lazar, a Prague-based lawyer involved in the relaunch, was hopeful.
“The leaders of various Jewish organizations know the ECJC exists,” he said. “I’m not sure that every Jew needs to know about it, but I would hope that every Jewish community leader, school director or other such activist does, and that it helps them do their jobs better by sharing resources and best practices.”