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November 20, 2009

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, NOVEMBER 20, 2009 PAGE 17A By Ben Harris VIENNA (JTA)--From a shelf in his office, Ariel Muzi- cant extracts a weathered copy of a May 1985 commu- nity newsletter whose cover sports a graph depicting the Jewish population of Vienna nosediving. From its postwar peak of about 9,000 in the early 1960s, the graph projected the Jewish population dipping below 5,000 by the turn of the millennium. Nearly a quarter-century after that dire prediction, the worst has been avoided: The number of registered com- munity members in Vienna stands at about 7,500 and, according to Muzicant, the community president, it is "technically growing." But leaders of the Viennese Jewish community, Muzi- cant among them, again are warning of disaster unless the community increases its ranks. And the consensus on how to do it can be summed up in a single word: immigration. "We need people," said Ilan Knapp, principal of a Jewish vocational high school in Vienna and the head of a com- munal commission working to bring Jewish immigrants to Vienna from the former Soviet Union. "The only possibility is to bring Jews from this area." Over the past two de- cades, Jewish communities in Western Europe whittled down by intermarriage and assimilation have sustained themselves with immigra- tion by Jews from the East, where~communism had left Jews trapped until the fall of the Iron Curtain. The largest Ben Harris Ariel Muzicant, president of the Vienna Jewish com- munity, in his office in the Austrian capital. pool of potential immigrants, from the former Soviet Union, have been migrating West in significant numbers since the fall of communism. Skeptics in Vienna say it's a mistake to pin the com- munity's future on the hope that more Russian-speaking immigrants will arrive here. "Those who wanted to come, came," said Rabbi Nechemia Rotenberg, the religious principal of a Jewish high school in Vienna who also works on continuity is- sues as the director of Zehut ("Identity"). Current projections show the total population of Aus- trian Jews declining by half in the next 10 to 30 years--a prediction that appears to vary largely on the degree of pessimism of those mak- ing it. Vienna's substantial Jewish infrastructure four schools, more than a dozen synagogues and an array of Jewish welfare agencies are in danger if the community cannot amass a larger pool of members to support it. Knapp pegs the target at about 25.000. "Communities which today are below 10.000 don't have the critical mass to survive." Muzicant said. noting that perhaps a third of European Jewish communities are in a situation similar to Vienna's and are in danger of disap- pearing. In trying to draw more Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Aus- tria's Jews are looking with both envy and trepidation at Germany, their neighbor to the north. Some 120,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have transformed German Jewry and. by some accounts, saved it from oblivion. Ben Harris llan Knapp, head of the JBBZ vocational school, leads a commission that will address the Vienna Jewish community's demographic problem. Ben Harris The Jewish old-age home being built will be part of a community campus that when finished is expected to be the largest of its kind in Europe. Knapp, whose school. JiJ- disches Berufliches Bildung- szentrum, helps train and assimilate Viennese Jews into the Austrian job market, is confident the community can absorb a large influx more successfully than Germany did. "They have the people but not the institutions." Knapp said. "We have the institu- tions but not the people." Neither Muzicant's diag- nosis nor his solution is uni- versally accepted in Vienna. Rotenberg says the com- munity is mistaken to pin its hopes on a significant Russian-speaking immigra- tion. The few Jews that are coming to Vienna. he says, are from smaller communi- ties with fewer religious options, such as Germany. He concedes the number is quite modest but says it could be increased. Yvonne Feiger, 28, the director of the Jewish Salons chapter in Vienna and a mem- ber of the community board. said the idea of immigration to save Austrian Jewry is ab- surd. Instead. the community should focus its resources on the Jews who already live here and. she believes, are not well served by existing community institutions. "They're not very good at finding creative answers instead of just saying what is bad," Feiger said. Muzicant. a real estate ex- ecutive with a somewhat fear- some reputation, is unlikely to be dissuaded by such views. During an interview with JTA in his office in the city center, Muzicant cited the many times during his long communal career in which his ideas were dismissed as pipe dreams only to be even- tually realized. "Part of my success is not genius," he said with the faintest glint in his eye. "It's being stubborn." By Ruth Ellen Gruber ROME (JTA)--The Eng- lish author L.P. Hartley once wrote that "The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there." That's how I feel whenever I look back at the way that the world--in particular, the Jewish world in Cen- tral and Eastern Europe-- worked before the collapse of communism 20 years ago. The changes triggered when the Berlin Wall came down have, of course, pro- duced a host of new and complex challenges that Jews in Europe have had to confront. But as Robert Djerassi, a leader of the Bulgarian Jewish community, put it recently, "When I think back to Socialist days, even ev- eryday experiences sound so improbable and grotesque that it's hard sometimes to convince people who didn't live through them that they actually took place." I lived and worked as a journalist in communist countries from the late 1970s onward, first as a cor- respondent for United Press International and then as an independent reporter, for JTA and others, as well as the author of several books on the region. It was in the late 1980s that I began dedicating much of my writing to Jew- ish subjects, just as com- munism was collapsing and Ruth Ellen Gruber Two decades ago this sausage stand in Prague stood under the entryway to a disused synagogue. Now the synagogue serves as the archives of the Czech capital's Jewish Museum. new democratic freedoms allowed Jews to reassert and reclaim their identity and forge a new beginning in what before the Holocaust had been Europe's Jewish heartland. Under communism in most countries in the re- gion, the practice of Juda- ism and the expression of Jewishness were semi- clandestine, almost secret. almost taboo. Leaders of the remnant Jewish communities in these countries were be- holden to the regime and generally toed the party line. Less than a year after the fall of communism, the rabbi in Prague was forced to resign after admitting that he had been a police informer under the communists. All communist states except Romania had broken ties with Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967. And in most countries Jewish practice and education. even the study of Hebrew, was strictly limited or even barred. In Prague. for example, the scholarly publication of what was then the State Jew- ish Museum was published in English and French and other languages but not in Czech. in order to limit access by local people. And many Jews I inter- viewed were unwilling to speak to me on the record. even on a subject such as the restoration of a monu- ment to victims of the Holocaust. "We had to get authoriza- tion from the authorities to speakwith foreign visitors. and then afterward we had to write out reports on our conversations, whether it be with visiting scholars, journalists or whatever," a Prague Jewish museum curator told me in 1990. "It was the pressure of a totalitarian regime." In Warsaw in the early 1980s. I was part of a group called the Jewish Flying University that consisted of young Jews and non-Jews who tried to teach them- selves on their own Jew- ish ritual, tradition, his- tory and culture. The group "flew" from apartment to apartment for meetings. Western Jews like myself were conduits to the outside world, despite the limits of our knowledge. "You're a real Jew." they told me. even though I don't keep kosher, go to ser- vices much or speak Hebrew. "You've known all your life that you are Jewish." November 1989 saw a climax of change in Eastern Europe that had been com- ing for months. Already that summer a negotiated settlement in Poland had led to free elec- tions. And in September, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had officially returned to Hungary after 36 years, and Hungary and Israel had resumed formal diplomatic relations. Nov. 12 of that year found me in Prague sitting with a small group of eager yet anxious Jews in the top floor function room of the historic Jewish Town Hall. The Berlin Wall had come down three days earlier, but the Velvet Revolution that ousted the communist regime in Prague was still five days away. We were there to meet with Edgar Bronfman. then president of the World Jew- ish Congress, who was mak- ing his first official visit to the country. I saw fear and hope-- and also excitement--on people's faces. "The winds of freedom are blowing across the world like a gale." Bronfman declared. "I don't like to use the word 'democracy,' but prefer to say that there is a new era dawn- ing on everyone that people won't be governed without their consent." He went on. "It is impor- tant that the Jewish people in Eastern Europe are begin- ning to feel closer together. It is heartbreakingly sad that there are so few Jews left, [but] the Jewish world will go from strength to strength. We have a mis- sion-to teach others the way of the Lord." Brcnfman concluded: "Freedom is blowing, blow- ing for all of us." It was an emotional mo- ment at the cusp of the unknown~ If the past is a foreign country, so is the future. Ruthless cosmopolitan is an occasional series by Ruth Ellen Gruber, whose books include "National Geographic Jewish Heri- tage Travel." A Guide to Eastern Europe," "Letters from Europe (and Else- where)," and "Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe." She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at jewish-heritage- travel, blogspot, com.