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European Rabbis Preach Tolerance, Find Few Takers

Binyamin Rose, Rome

In Search for Common Ground, Rabbis Stress the Positives

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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EXTREME AGENDAS “Parties with extreme agendas could form anti-Semitic governments,” says Rabbi Menachem Margolin. “This is a red line for the Jews in Europe and we are not too far from that line” (Photos: Itzik Balinko)

H olland’s Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs is no stranger to anti-Semitism. His home, about 25 miles southeast of Amsterdam, has been targeted by hate attacks on five separate occasions, including bricks hurled through his windows.

Yet even he was unprepared for the chilling conversation he held in his home with a refugee from Syria seeking sanctuary in Holland.

“He told me he was brought up with the knowledge that his mission in life was to kill Jews, but that he had no idea if a Jew was a virus, an animal, or a human being,” said Rabbi Jacobs. In the past two years, Rabbi Jacobs has joined forces with Christian and Muslim clerics to promote tolerance in Holland, where he has been chief rabbi since 2009.

While European governments have accepted millions of Middle Eastern refugees on humanitarian grounds, Rabbi Jacobs contends they are failing to introduce them to humanitarian values, which include Europe’s concept of a multicultural society. “What needs to be taught, and isn’t, is that if you have a different belief from mine, you can try and convince me, but if I don’t accept it, you don’t have to try and kill me.”

Rabbi Jacobs was one of 150 European rabbanim who attended last week’s Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE) conference in Pomezia, Italy, a 45-minute drive from Rome. The RCE, founded in 2000, provides support, as well as professional and political guidance, to some 1,100 rabbis in close to 100 European cities. Although this year’s conference was conceived as a sounding board for discussion on fighting assimilation, screening and counseling potential converts to Judaism, and the halachic ramifications of new technologies such as “smart” air conditioners, refrigerators, and Shabbos elevators, battling anti-Semitism and the continent’s growing political polarization lurked in the background.

It was somewhat ironic that the RCE chose to schedule one event at Rome’s Great Synagogue, a ten-minute walk from the Palazzo dei Conservatori, where 60 years ago this week, the Treaty of Rome was signed creating the European Economic Community, the forerunner to today’s European Union, which today struggles to maintain unity after Brexit, other economic strains, and an ongoing influx of refugees.

The bulk of those refugees come from Middle Eastern countries hostile to Israel, so for Europe’s Jews, always on guard against a resurgence of classic European anti-Semitism, the influx has created a new set of safety and security concerns. To highlight those concerns, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the RCE’s general director, invited ambassadors and representatives of more than 20 different governments to the ceremony at Rome’s Great Synagogue and a dinner afterward.

“I want them to understand that Jewish life in Europe today has become a challenge that only governments, not individuals, are able to meet,” Rabbi Margolin said. Due to the growing appeal of right-wing populism, Rabbi Margolin urged European governments to consider outlawing extremist parties, before it is too late. “Parties with extreme agendas could form anti-Semitic governments. This is a red line for the Jews in Europe and we are not too far from that line.”

While Italy, this year’s host country for the RCE conference, has been relatively immune to terror in recent years, neither Rome’s Jews nor its local authorities have forgotten the 1982 terrorist atrocity at the city’s Great Synagogue, when Palestinian terrorists unleashed an attack with grenades and gunfire just as Shabbos morning services ended, killing a two-year-old boy and wounding 37 others.

Located just off the banks of the Tiber River, on Lungotevere del Cenci Street, the synagogue, as well as Rome’s largest Jewish day school right across the street, are well protected today by armed police, who park their squad cars at each of the street’s entrances. The basement of the synagogue houses Rome’s Jewish Museum, with relics dating back to 1555, when Pope Paul IV first herded the city’s Jews into ghetto life.

While this section of Rome is still known in the tourist industry as the Jewish ghetto, today, the street parallel to the synagogue — Portico D’Ottavia street — is the Ben Yehuda Street of Rome. Close to a dozen kosher eateries, bakeries, and a shop with the best gelato (Italian ice cream) I’ve ever tasted, line both sides of the street. Maître d’s stand outside, stopping passersby, proudly showing off their menus. While the fare varies, one staple you will always find at a kosher Italian restaurant are the bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar automatically brought to the table for dipping the bread, or pouring on salads.

(That could be one of the secrets to keeping Italians healthy. My visit last week coincided with the release of the annual Bloomberg Global Health Index of 163 countries, which named Italy as the healthiest country in the world, based on expected lifespan and access to high-quality affordable medical care.)

The good vibes rub off on the Jews too.

“Italy is a very positive place for a Jew to be,” says Sol Bukingolts, a consultant to the oil and gas industry who travels frequently throughout Europe on business and relocated to Rome three years ago. “It is a tolerant and understanding society. The Italian people want to live in peace, enjoy the sea, their food, lifestyle, and culture.”

Besides the dozen or so kosher restaurants, the city’s estimated 14,000 Jews (about half of Italy’s Jewish population) can choose from an equal number of Orthodox synagogues. The Great Synagogue uses a nusach unique to Italy whose early traces can be found in the siddurim of Rav Saadiah Gaon. Close to one-third of the Jews who reside in Rome today are refugees from Libya’s 1967 pogrom perpetrated in response to Israel’s miraculous military victory in the Six Day War.

Rome’s Jews haven’t forgotten the 1982 Shabbos terrorist attack. Today the Great Synagogue is well protected by armed police

With a unity built through diversity, many community leaders, including Bukingolts, leverage their feelings of security to reach out to clergy from other religions. “We try to find common ground where we can talk with each other rather than talk about each other,” he says. “The best way to establish common ground is by starting with little kids so that we won’t see Palestinians trying to raise their newborns with grenades and machine guns.”

For all the pressures he is under, Rabbi Jacobs is doing his share of outreach in Holland, as well. He has teamed up with the archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox church, the head of Holland’s Protestant church, and a leading Muslim cleric on visits to refugee camps.

Often, the experience is positive.

“The four of us were sitting there and the Syrians were pushing in line to stand next to me and take selfies, so they could send them back to their relatives in Damascus,” Rabbi Jacobs said. But when he and the other clerics approached government officials in charge of refugee centers with the idea of turning such visits into an official forum to promote multiculturalism, they were rebuffed. Rabbi Jacobs feels it’s because European governments want to keep religious people out of the picture. “Secular is the new religion in Holland. If you’re secular, you’re normal. If you’re religious, you’re abnormal,” he says.

As deeply worried as he is about security issues and anti-Semitism on the European continent, Rabbi Margolin says there is still much to be grateful for. “Communities are flourishing more than ever, thanks mainly to our young rabbis who began new programs, kindergartens, schools, and cultural events, including shabbatons all over Europe.”

Rabbi Margolin says one of the RCE’s flagship programs is its bar mitzvah project. Each year, the RCE brings more than 100 youth from Europe to Israel for eight days to tour, visit Jewish holy sites, and learn some Torah.

In the final analysis, European rabbanim may have limited influence on the broader community and government, but the sky is still the limit when it comes to helping protect, preserve, and defend our own traditions.

That was precisely the closing message delivered by Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef in his address to the capacity crowd at the Great Synagogue, most of whom came to Minchah and Maariv the final night of the conference, especially to see him. “We must get our children to make kabbalos, and at the same time, to teach them the importance of Am Yisrael. Without the Torah we have no worth,” Rav Yosef said. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 654)

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