This article was originally posted in the Jewish Journal through Jewrnalism.
Written by Masha Pryven.
This last month of spring began for many with an exciting and inspiring event: The Paideia Alumni Conference 2012. Annually one or another European city is selected to host the conference to allow the graduates of the Jewish Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden from around the continent to meet, converse, exchange, to speak and be heard. This time, the alumni convened in Heidelberg, Germany which seems to have been inserted in its entirety by an architect’s hand to impeccably match the surrounding nature. The beauty of Heidelberg is breathtaking and must-see in Germany. The Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg and its rector, Professor Johannes Heil, cordially hosted the alumni event in the historic heart of the Old Town.
The topic of the conference “Contemporary European Jewish Challenges” stubbornly persists, though the effort to think through visions and solutions does too. This time, participants were fortunate to have Rabbi Dr. Daniel Katz, and Stephen Kramer, Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, as the key voices of the current German Jewry. The social structure of the Jewish communities in Germany is quite different from the United States, where each synagogue is an independent institution and a matter of individual preference based upon a variety of possibilities. In Germany, synagogues are run on a centralized basis and a Rabbi is appointed from above rather than elected at the local level. Moreover, the Orthodox movement is dominant in Germany and thus is the only possible option for Jews across the country. Stephen Kramer put the situation of the German Jews bluntly: registered members in the Jewish communities are decreasing; German Jewry is gone in the Shoah, and there is no Jewish Renaissance today. No matter how pessimistic it sounded, Kramer resolutely made his point: what was destroyed before 1933 cannot be re-built. However, he emphasized, the new German Jewry consisting of 97% of Russian-speaking arrivals from the former Soviet Union presents with the new challenges of integration.
While Kramer was presenting a gloomy view of the Jewish revival in Europe, a Jewish revitalization was happening right there in the Hochschule at Heidelberg. Piotr Mirsky (Poland), Martin Schubert (Germany), Elisabetta Abate (Italy), and Oriol Poveda (Spain) in their presentations touched upon prospects in education, religious life, and project development. The great success was the small group discussions for both finding the ways of a more efficient cooperation between the alumni and for the “European Café”. For the latter, teams of participants were moving around the room from table to table as they considered many aspects of European Jewish culture viewed through the spectacles of challenges and opportunities. Why preserve objects and places of memory? What creative tensions evolve out of the quest for authenticity and the demand for the currency and novelty? Has religion really become obsolete and is not the centre of Jewish life any longer? These were just some of the questions presented among many. Between the panels, guests were invited on a tour around Jewish Heidelberg. Rabbi Shaul Friberg, of the Hochschule, echoing Kramer’s prognosis, admitted that as one walks through Heidelberg today, they will not see its Jewish past and are only left with stories and memory. Though, Shaul cheerfully pointed out the Hochschule which is itself an old construction with a more recent addition.
Barbara Spectre, the founding director of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, led a beit midrash session in the challenging and inspiring spirit of those that she often holds in Stockholm. Again, Barbara looked at the choices and dilemmas of the biblical characters through the universal, all-human, existential lens which proved once more that Jewish traditional texts can be a system of values for humanity in the twenty-first century if read through a cultural, literary, and historical spectacle coupled with a strong passion for re-vitalization of Judaism.
Among the others who made this conference a success was Diane Wohl, Patron of the Alumni Association and Paideia’s friend, who flew across the Atlantic and brought her mix of strong enthusiasm, pertinent and probing questions, and kind encouragement to the Paideia fellows.
The Jewish chronicle does not end here but most certainly will be carried on next year at a new spot, somewhere in Europe, which is itself is as much defined by complexity as it is by inspiration.