March 2, 2006
Wandering Jew - New Year’s in Vienna
About six years ago at the University of Texas, I was asked to be the guest speaker for Shabbat 1,000, an event where 1,000 Jewish students are served full-course traditional Shabbat meals for free. There are no prayer services.
They must have an interesting orientation program for this unique venue, because everyone shows up on time for the Shabbat meal. Everyone is told beforehand that the only thing they need to do is to be quiet for the 15-minute sermon by the rabbi, and since a microphone is not used because of Shabbat, and the local campus rabbi couldn't project a speech loud enough to be heard in the huge, high-ceilinged dining room, they needed someone with a built-in "PA" system. I'm used to projecting in precisely this type of venue, so they "rented" me to give that 15-minute sermon.
While in Austin, I met a young, good-looking, single, charismatic Aussie working in Jewish "outreach." We hung out for the weekend and became fast friends. I came home and told my wife that the Aussie was destined for greatness in outreach.
Six years later, this young man, now married with two kids, had founded the European Center for Jewish Students. He had planned a New Year's Eve weekend in Austria at the prestigious Vienna Hilton Hotel, and almost 300 students had R.S.V.P.'d. They came from 13 countries, hungry for fellowship with Jews their own age.
My Aussie friend, Yossi Waks, remembered bar-hopping with me in Austin, looking to kidnap Jewish students. He had been working in Europe for two years and realized that for the event to be a success, he needed a wild and crazy guy/rabbi.
My wife, Olivia, and I went to Vienna to excite and inspire, and we came away deeply moved by the students. Between Thursday night and Sunday morning we got to meet dozens of individuals and heard their personal stories.
The age range was from 18 to 26. There was the smashing blonde from Warsaw who worked for Polish television. Two years ago, her mother became seriously ill and told her, at age 22, that she was Jewish and then gave her a necklace with a Jewish Star that had belonged to her bubbe (the blonde's great-grandma). Since then, she has been passionately driven to find out about her Judaism and had begun to get involved in the religion in a serious way.
Then there was the student from Geneva whose mom had married a Jew, then began to take on some traditions and slowly started dragging her hubby to temple. The student developed an interest when she was 15 and converted formally at age 18, went on birthright at 20 and was now 22 and hungry for any tidbit about Torah and practice.
The two vivacious roommates from Rome and Milan were clueless and had come to party for New Year's, but Olivia zeroed in on them, and Sunday morning at the grand farewell they were almost crying to have to part from their new "rabbi."
There was also a large contingent originally from Russia who had come to Europe as children with their parents. They all spoke German, but at their own table they easily moved to Russian. On Friday night after all the programs, I went to the lobby after midnight and saw about 100 of our group still shmoozing. Many of the students were smoking and talking on their cellphones -- still wearing their kippahs! It was a unique sight.
I walked out of the Friday night Shabbat meal for a few minutes into the lobby. I saw a family sitting together -- an older man with his wife and their two adult children. As I passed by with my kippah on, the man gave me the most beautiful smile. It certainly seemed like he wanted to say hello, although in Europe it's just not PC to approach strangers and begin a conversation. Since I'm not from Europe and don't abide by their rules, I approached them and his smile grew even broader. He was ecstatic that I came over; he spoke Yiddish, so I got the whole story.
He was originally from Vienna. When he was 16 and the Nazis took over the city, both he and his father were arrested for the crime of being Juden and sent to Dachau. The war had not officially started yet -- it was pre-"Final Solution" -- and since he was only 16, he was sent back home. His father actually also came back home after four months. They then fled to Brazil.
Now he was in his 70s, and it was the first time that he had returned to Vienna to visit. He was a guest in the Hilton (by "accident") and was in the lobby watching the parade of beautiful Jewish college kids traipsing around in their Shabbat best.
Of course we shlepped him and his family back into the ballroom and made them eat the amazing Shabbat banquet meal with all of us inside. He then told me, crying, that this was his first Shabbat meal since he left Vienna 60 years ago. It was a very emotional scene.
Saturday night was New Year's Eve, and the five-star Hilton Grand Ballroom was outfitted for a formal ball. Yossi had brought in a seven-piece Israeli band from Amsterdam.
At the crucial moment of 11:45 p.m., when the folks were jockeying for position for the traditional kiss, the band suddenly stopped. I had the unforgettable honor of going up on stage and speaking for a maximum two minutes and then publicly lighting the Chanukah menorah.
Only 10 percent there knew the "Maoz Tzur," but everybody was very up for the New Year's Eve/Chanukah experience.
I had always thought that European Jewry was dead (and almost forgotten). However it looks like there's enough for me to do there that I (verbally) signed a lifetime contract for the New Year's Eve gig in Europe.
For an outreach rabbi, it's a gold mine of ripe and ready, interested and enthusiastic 20-somethings, a demographic we don't see in this country.
Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz is in the midst of celebrating his 60th birthday.> He is director of the Chai Center.