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December 25, 2009

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PAGE 18A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 25, 2009 Danish Jews ponder bleak future By Ben Harris COPENHAGEN, Denmark (JTA)--Forty years ago, when a few thousand Polish Jewish refugees arrived in Den- mark fleeing an anti-Semitic campaign orchestrated by Poland's Communist govern- ment, Danish Jews welcomed the newcomers with high hopes. Previous waves of Jewish immigrants had rejuvenated a community marked by high rates of intermarriage, assimilation and emigration, and Denmark's Jews held out the same hopes for these new immigrants. But many of the Polish Jews were assimilated and saw little value in Jewish affiliation, and even those who joined the active Jewish community have seen their children--following the example of generations of Danish Jews before them-- intermarry and drift from Jewish life in Denmark. "Our children, even some of them who went to Jewish school, most of them are getting assimilated," said Jacob Zylber, who arrived in Denmark four decades ago at age 23. "You cannot do much about it." Today, Denmark's Jewish community of some 2,000 members is scarcely big- ger than it was 40 years ago. With no great wave of Jewish immigrants on the horizon, Jewish leaders fear they may be witnessing the death throes of a community that dates back to the 17th century. "It will be a very, very small community, and probably a more cultural, social, friend- ship club," said Bent Lexner, the country's chief rabbi, when asked what he foresees for Danish Jewry. "You never know what's going on tomor- row. But as I see it now, there will be very few people who are identifying themselves as traditional Jews." Denmark's Jewish leaders are trying to figure out how to Ben Harris Former Danish minister and parliamentarian Arne Melchior fears the Jewish community will not be able to support its current infra- structure within a few years. sustain a community whose active young Jews decamp for better social and religious opportunities abroad and whose least committed melt into a society that has heen, by European standards, re- Ben Harris The Danish Jewish Museum recently mounted an exhibition commemorating 40 years since the Polish immigration, the last significant group of Jewish immigrants to arrive in Denmark. markably welcoming of its Jewish minority. "The answer is to try to hold on to the members that we can hold on, and try to get a lot of the potential members to join, which is very hard to do," said Finn Schwarz, the president of Mosaiske Troes- samfund, the community's main umbrella group. Schwarz recently took the unprecedented step of sending letters to 500 former community members urging them to return. Besides tout- ing all the typical commu- nity offerings--the Jewish school, old-age home, the synagogue--he also noted the importance of fighting for Jewish rights, a point that these days has a particular potency in a country with a growing and restive Muslim minority. Schwarz says he prefers to view the future of Dan- ish Jewry with optimism. Other community leaders, however, are more accepting of the community's declining numbers. Lexner, the chief rabbi since 1996, caused a minor stir when a Danish newspa- per quoted him as saying, in effect, that there was no law requiring Denmark to have a Jewish community. Lexner's three children all live in Israel. "I'm happy to see them there," Lexner said. "I can see that my education has succeeded." The plight of Denmark's Jews raises questions about the fate of scores of smaller European Jewish communi- ties, manywith distinguished histories that go back cen- turies. Though even stable Jewish communities in the United States face similar challenges of intermarriage and assimilation, the lack of a critical mass of members contributes to a self-rein- forcing cycle: Each Jewish emigrant raises the incentive for others eager for a vibrant Jewish life to follow suit. "That's the fate of small communities," said Sergio Della Pergola, one of the world's foremost Jewish demographers and himself a European emigrant. Born in Italy, Della Pergola now lives in Israel. "[Community life] is not feasible below a certain threshhold," Della Pergola said. "And this is something that strangely enough people do not realize." About the only personwho doesn't fear for the commu- nity's future is an outsider: Andrew Buckser, a professor of anthropology at Indiana's Purdue University and the author of perhaps the most comprehensive academic study of Danish Jews, "After the Rescue." Buckser says Denmark's Jews have worried about their community's disap- pearance for a century, yet the community is still Ben Harris Jewish community presi- dent Finn Schwarz is trying to woo lapsed community members back into the fold. around. While he acknowl- edges the demographic chal- lenges posed by emigration and assimilation, Buckser's notion of what constitutes a Jewish community in the modern age leaves him con- fident that the predictions of Danish Jewry's demise are overstated. Jewish environmental group increasing efforts as climate debate heats up In "After the Rescue," Buckser argues that Danish Jewry is not a community in the classical sense--a clearly defined group marked by a common set of beliefs and practices. Rather, Judaism in Denmark is more of a "toolbox," a set of symbols from which individuals draw at will to construct their own identities. And that toolbox, he says, is as vital as ever. The fear of communal de- mise in Denmark is "based on an assumption that assimila- tion and intermarriage will result in your community disappearing," Buckser told JTA. "I'm not sure that's a correct assumption." Though Buckser may be right, most Danish Jews are not thinking about Jewish symbolism when they pon- der the fate of their com- munity. They are thinking about their institutions--the synagogues and schools and nursing homes they fear will no longer have a constitu- ency to support them. "I'm not an optimist," said Arne Melchior, a seventh- generation Dane whose fa- ther and brother both served as chief rabbis. A former parliamentarian and government minister, Melchior is a proud Danish patriot who sings the praises not only of his country's best known achievements--the virtual absence of poverty and unemployment--but even its more dubious ones, like its sky-high marginal tax rates. But Melchior's cheeriness about Denmark turns dark when he contemplates the future of the Jewish com- munity. Some of the very things that make Denmark so attractive to Melchior are what threaten Jewish sur- vival here, he acknowledges. "We are very open towards the surrounding society," Melchior said. "And the more contactyou get, the more you will take over their customs. You are not an isolated group. You are a very open group." By Eric Fingerhut WASHINGTON (JTA)-- As the debate over how to combat climate change heats up in Copenhagen, the Coalition on the En- vironment and Jewish Life is ramping up its efforts to help make the Jewish com- munity a key player in the discussion. Without a full-time direc- tor since early 2006, COEJL has secured a half-million dollars in funding for the next two years and hired Sybil Sanchez, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, to be its new director. Sanchez said she sees COEJL helping the Jewish environmental movement transition into a new phase. For a long time, she said, the goal was to get people to understand such things like "climate change is real" and the negative im- pact of carbon emissions. But now that "all but the Courtesy Sybil Sanchez Sybil Sanchez, the new COEJL director, says the group's focus will be on its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign seeking increased activism on environmental issues. hard core" in the Jewish community are convinced of that, Sanchez said, the question is "how do we integrate that into action as Jewish individuals and activists--move it to the next level and start to be the change we want to see in the world." "It's a challenging and inspiring time," she said. Sanchez, who was offi- cially to take over at COEJL on Dec. 9, said specific plans for the future are still being discussed--she said the group would likely be hiring a representative in Washington--but the pri- mary focus of the envior- nmental organization's efforts right now is the 'Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. The initiative asks American Jews to pledge that they will act to conserve on the individual level, be part of Jewish communal actions on the environment, and advocate for environmental issues with elected officials and in the media. She also sees COEJL becoming a clearinghouse of information for syna- gogues and Jewish orga- nizations, providing best practices and products to help sustainability, pro- viding advice and mak- ing connections between groups working on similar issues. COEJL sponsored a "sustainability" confer- ence earlier this year for representatives of Jewish organizations. Sanchez said the environ- ment sparks multi-genera- tional interest among Jews because it encompasses a number of different is- sues--from concern about dependence on foreign oil to protection of nature to worries about the state of the planet for future generations. And Sanchez argues that Judaism is con- nected to the environment in a number of ways. Major Jewish holidays are timed to the seasons of Israel, she points out, and working "in community and collectively are part of the Jewish and environmental lifestyle." For example, the require- ment to pray in a minyan, she notes, is one example of the "idea that we need each other" in Judaism. In the absence of a full- time leader in the last few years, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism have stepped in to help out with COEJL, which is a project of JCPA. The Reform center worked on legislative advo- cacy in Washington, while JCPA--an advocacy um- brella organization bring- ing together the synagogue movements, national orga- nizations and local Jewish communities--organized grass-roots support and activism throughout the country. The Reform center's di- rector, Rabbi David Saper- stein, said it was nice to have both organizations "more engaged than they might have been otherwise" in the issue and he hopes that intensity continues, but added that COEJL's re-emergence will help to mobilize further the con- sciousness of the Jewish community. "It is crucially important at this moment in history to play a role in the climate change debate," he said. "I feel it's back in the nick of time," said JCPA's presi- dent, Rabbi Steve Gutow, who hopes to see COEJL become successful enough to eventually spin off into an independent group. Gutow said the Jewish community has been a "very important leader" on a number of other issues in recent years--from Darfur to Iran to anti-discrimina- tion issues--but has not done the same on energy and the environment. "I think people look to us for leadership on certain issues," he said, and "if we decide to lead, I do thinkwe have a particular niche that we are able to help move it forward."