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At Home in Vienna

By D. Marton

Viennamay have a painful past, but there’s nothing gloomy about its present. The city is home to a vibrant, growing kehillah — and it’s relatively affordable — making this one place that lives up to its slogan:Vienna is different!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

kids in viennaIt may not have the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael, but neither does it have the pressures.  It may not have the Jewish infrastructure of New York, but neither does it have the pollution. It may not have as big a heimishe population as London, but neither does it have the rainy weather. Wien ist anders (Vienna is different) runs the slogan of the city council. What’s true for the rest of the population is also true for Jewish Vienna.

In a global survey conducted by Mercers, an international outsourcing and human relations company,Viennawas awarded first place for “Quality of Living” for three consecutive years, from 2009-2011.

The easy-going, comfortable lifestyle is apparent even to the casual visitor. The streets are clean, the houses may be centuries old but their vibrant colors and beautiful facades add undertones of elegance. Most residents live in apartment buildings that are home to an average of 20 families per building. For the most part, the Jews find their non-Jewish neighbors to be cordial and encounter no problems living in mixed buildings. SinceAustriais a predominantly Catholic country, all businesses and stores are closed on Sundays as well as public holidays.

Adding to the ease of daily life isVienna’s well-planned transportation system. A recent study found that 96 percent of Viennese will find some sort of public transportation within a short walking distance of any given spot. Thanks to the extensive variety of underground trains, tramways, and buses, many find it unnecessary to use a car. Families with young children also appreciate the city’s many parks and playgrounds. One needn’t walk farther than five minutes from home to find a place for the children to run and play.

Vienna’s history is strongly intertwined with its Jewish inhabitants. Many gedolim lived here, and remnants of the city’s Jewish life can be seen, for example, in an excavated shul dating to the 15th century and the Jewish cemeteries. Of the approximately 200,000 Jews who lived in Vienna between the World Wars, many managed to escape. The Nazis murdered most of those who stayed. In comparison to the pre-war numbers, today’s Jewish population of approximately 8,000 is very small. Of that number, only a handful can trace their Viennese lineage back to the era before March 1938, when Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany. Today, Vienna’s heimishe Jewish community of several hundred families is made up mainly of children of refugees from Eastern Europe, who came after the war. This demographic has lent the community a predominantly chassidish character; Bucharian Jews who arrived in the late 70s and 80s have also added their unique “flavor” to the community.

Mr. Yitzchak Binyamin(Lani) Neumann, a member of the Viennakehillah who grew up in post-warVienna and has played a formative role in the communal structure, observes, “For many years people lived here with an attitude that ‘I am still on my way onwards.’ People didn’t wantVienna to be their hometown. That attitude contributed to the lack of infrastructure we had back then, which is still somewhat felt today.” 

In those early post-war years, there were no Jewish schools available other than an elementary school run by the Joint, which closed a few years after opening. Parents who wanted their children to have a Torah education would send them to cheder for a few hours in the afternoon, after a full day of learning at an Austrian public school. Besides kosher butcher shops, there were no kosher stores; kosher products were imported from other countries. Even chalav Yisrael could only be obtained with great personal effort.

The rabbanim who resided in Vienna after the war didn’t plan to stay, so the kehillos didn’t have a spiritual leader to guide them and help them rebuild. Some ultimately stayed on, such as Rav Chaim Grunfeld, who had been secretary of the Agudah in Vienna. “He was a beloved rav who was a father figure to the broken souls after the war,” says Mr. Neumann, “even though he himself suffered and lost his family during the Holocaust.”

But even those rabbanim who found leadership roles in the community focused mainly on rehabilitating the broken survivors after the war. Very few had the time or strength to actually build or develop the state of Judaism inVienna. “One lived just to survive,” explains Mr. Neumann.

Survival mode changed to growth mode in the late 1970s and early 80s. A pillar of strength who helped the heimishe community grow and build was the long-time president of the autonomous Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, IKG (Jewish Community Council), Mr. Paul Grosz. He helped foster one of the major changes among the community: a proper schooling system. In fact, the establishment of two Jewish school systems was probably the most promising harbinger of development in Vienna. One school was founded by the IKG, which offered a learning environment exclusive to Jewish children, but without a Torah curriculum. Then Rav Bezalel Stern and, later, his son Rav Chaim Stern, of Machzike Hadass, opened a boys’ and a girls’ school for the heimishe community.

When a new rav, Rav Avrohom Y. Schwartz, arrived in town, he breathed new life into the community. He opened a kollel, which brought new families to town. Suddenly there was not just  chalav Yisrael milk available but all kinds of dairy products, a novelty for the community accustomed to subsisting on basics. Then the first kosher minimarket opened. The Kashrus Committee was founded to supervise the manufacture of various food staples at Austrian factories. Even the recently established eruv was initially proposed by the rav and his followers. With the new amenities and the sense of energy and growth, the winds changed. Suddenly young couples began to seriously consider making their permanent homes inVienna, and some outsiders even moved there from abroad. “It is safe to say,” Mr. Neumann adds, “that without Rav Schwartz the community wouldn’t be what it is today.”

At about the same time there was an influx of Bucharian and Georgian Jews from the former Soviet Union. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent Rav Yakov Biderman to help welcome these refugees and inject Yiddishkeit into their lives, and today there is a large and thriving frum Bucharian community and Lubavitch kehillah inVienna.

Over the past 30 years the infrastructure has expanded and continues to grow. It’s the kind of growth that is the fruit of many individuals’ sweat and tears. According to Mr. Neumann, “This is only possible when people put their heart and soul into helping this town grow. One can truly see that the mesirus nefesh of the people who live here, and of those who are willing to give of themselves by moving here, goes a long way.”

Along with the internal growth has come a greater sense of confidence and security. Until 30 years ago, most Jews were careful to hide their identity, keeping their children’s peyos hidden behind the ears and wearing a cap to conceal a yarmulke. Chassidish Jews avoided wearing their streimels outdoors, for fear of the older generation taunting or threatening them. Nowadays Vienna’s Jews are visibly proud of their Yiddishkeit, and all over the Second District you will see boys on their scooters with peyos and tzitzis flying. Streimels or other heimishe levush on Shabbos are the norm.


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