In Search of a Jewish Space

In Search of a Jewish Space

09 Jun 2016

I don’t know about you, but for the past couple of years, I’ve felt in need of some window-shopping across the European Jewish landscape.

The offer appeared plentiful: religious life, educational programmes, student groups, cause-focused non-profits, leadership seminars, Israel/or Israel-related things - you name it. However, I just couldn’t seem to find the right fit.

What is it that we are used to, and what is it that we want of our Jewish spaces today?

What is familiar?

It seems to me that the main structure of European Jewish life is the Community/Community Centre. And, as is often the case in Central and Eastern Europe, that was all that I knew for most of my life. I was nestled into my local community automatically, straight from day one. As  my family’s community roots go way back, being part of my local JC was never a question. But at a certain point, things happened, years passed, and suddenly I was no longer part of it.

My community had changed. The micro-political shenanigans that tore many an Eastern-European Jewish Community apart in the past 20-something years left a decisive mark, splitting it in two. You know, it’s the kind of event that can get nasty and make you wish all that prejudice of ‘Jews always sticking together’ were remotely true. With only 200 members, those that left were in no position to create any sort of an alternative. Being 19 at the time, away from home and with an itch to explore, I ended up in Stockholm, studying at Paideia.

What I got out of the year of Paideia’s academic programme went way beyond what I thought I was getting myself into. The notion of academic Jewish study had never crossed my mind, and I couldn’t even fathom what it entailed, even as I was planning for a degree in Religious Studies, not to mention a childhood spent in summer camps, so I really should have known better. And as soon as I got to the point where I no longer confused Mishnah and Midrash, deep engagement with the textual sources became my bedrock. In the years since, I’ve realised this was more than just feeding my love of humanities.

‘All human existence, as Amir Eshel has put it, is „fundamentally connected to and manifested in space“‘ - Joachim Schlör

There is something about any Paideia experience that feels like home, familiar and soothing. There is a feeling of belonging to it — of finally pinning down the Jewish space or milieu I can most relate to. I got similar bouts of familiarity within other academic environments dedicated to Jewish or Religious Studies, or when attending interfaith events.

After one such experience, I managed to pin it down: my Jewish milieu, wherever and whatever it may be, seems to be defined by strong textual and intellectual foundations, while at the same time being dedicated to social justice and Tikkun Olam. These were also inclusive environments, non-denominational and welcoming to anyone interested, regardless of affiliation, if any.

The downside of all these programmes is that they are by definition temporally limited. They are one-offs, spanning from a couple of days to a couple of weeks in length, or at most a year or two. None have the permanence germane to, say, religious life with its regular set of physical spaces and mechanisms you can count on in pretty much any European capital, as well as bigger cities. Not being religious, I sought a deep connection with Jewish sources, but couldn’t seem to find it within the structures I was used to. And in the cities I lived in, the offer of the community centre and the synagogue just wasn’t the right fit.

The JCs, themselves, can sometimes seem like impenetrable bastions of social services and Holocaust commemoration, and little else.

This realisation prompted me to scan the contemporary European Jewish landscape with the intention of mapping out its offer, and finding a structure I could relate to, Goldilocks-style: not too hard, not too soft, but just the right space.

Investigating the landscape

Researchers have dealt with the topic of contemporary Jewish space(s) through a number of lenses: from history to urban studies, anthropology and beyond.

Any investigation of Jewish space(s) has to start with a definition, and the term ‘Jewish space’ has been used in a variety of ways, going from a literal to the metaphorical meaning, describing everything from fluid process and sets of experiences, to fixed entities.

In this way, a ‘Jewish space’ is anything from a kosher store or a synagogue, to a debate on Jewish life in Europe, or a Jewish music festival.

The term ‘Jewish space’ itself seems to have originated in the 1990s with historian Diana Pinto, describing places found within the mainstream European society occupied by all things Jewish, however independent of local Jewish life. In her understanding of the Jewish space, she points to the explosion of interest in Jewish topics, culture and art, in primarily Western Europe and Poland of the 1980s, where ‘the Jewish thing’ became in a certain sense universal, as part of a process of Erinnerungspolitik - coming to terms with the past and ‘making-up’ for the society’s lost Jews.

While Pinto acknowledged the participation of Jews within such a potentially non-Jewishly-initiated spaces, Michal Y. Bodemann introduced the expression Judaising milieu to draw attention to the pivotal if not defining role of non-Jewish actors in, and behind, such initiatives; proselytes and ’’professional-almost-Jews' tinkering away inside or outside them’. Ruth Ellen Gruber, going a step further, coined the term ’virtually Jewish’ as a description of what she sees as non-Jews commonly ‘filling’ European Jewish space with their own ideas and operations, but also extending the ‘space’ to include the media as well as the symbolic. Sandra Lustig and Ian Levenson, who have attempted to clarify the relationships between these suggested definitions, extending from initial starting point of Pinto, see the Jewish space as lying ’partly within civil society, partly within the cultural market’, and acting as both a point of outreach for unaffiliated Jews, as well as an all-encompassing arena in which both Jews and non-Jews can engage with Jewish themes.

However you decide to define it, Henri Lefebvre seems to be right when he points out that a space is “at once result and cause, product and producer”.

So where does this nomenclature actually leave us? And what is it that we have on offer?

A simple categorisation offered as part of the project ‘Jewish Spaces: Historical and symbolical landscapes in Berlin and Budapest’ aptly classifies all of the above into:

  • Historical spaces: being spaces of memories to Jewish (urban) history.
  • Virtual spaces: defined as ‘a specific space produced by activities and communication relating to Jewish issues’
  • Contemporary urban and cultural spaces: relating to urban spaces in which Jewish culture is constructed, produced and received.

Whether or not the ‘contemporary urban’ space can include the Jewish Community Centres, will depend, I believe, on the notion of the ‘urban’ as well as with how the JCCs are being transformed from primarily social welfare organisations to centres of Jewish life, learning and culture.

And this is where it gets exciting.

In recent years, there seems to be something of a slow evolution of JCs in Europe. Two prime examples are the JW3 - The Jewish Community Centre in London, and the Jewish Community Centre in Warsaw.

JW3, opened its doors in October 2013 under the tagline ’The New Postcode for Jewish Life’. Among its goals are ‘increasing the quality, variety and volume of Jewish conversation’, as well as reflecting the diversity of their community by being welcoming to all, ‘wherever (or whether) they place themselves on the religious spectrum’.

'The aim of JW3 is to transform the Jewish landscape in London by helping to create a vibrant, diverse and proud community, inspired by and engaged in Jewish arts, culture and community.'

That diversity is also reflected in their programming - from pilates classes to Hebrew calligraphy, JW3 offers year-long educational, health & fitness, and cultural programme, in addition to family friendly and early childhood services. There’s a class on Modern Jewish Literature, the Abraham Debating Club where you can join, or just listen to a debate, and film screenings.

Over in Poland, the same vibe can be seen in the newly revamped JCC Warsaw. It’s mission, is, as they put it ‘all about Jewish informal education’, yet its programming is not only catering to all from kids to adults, but is also inclusive and also open to Jews and non-Jews alike. There are Feldenkreis method classes, Sunday brunches, a film club and a lecture series ‘Jewish ABC’, offering to teach you ’everything you always wanted to know’. There’s even an academic-level study programme called Bereszit Open University.

A Shavuot cheese-making workshop? Yes, please.

It appears that all this time, I’ve basically been searching for a building to belong to. The synagogue isn’t the one for me, but, in terms of how our JCCs are developing, consider me intrigued.

Sara Stojković - a graduate of Paideia, on her way to completing her master’s degree at the Hochschüle für Jüdische Studien at the University of Heidelberg.

JEU aims at providing a platform for a pan-European exchange on Jewish life, thought and culture that extends beyond national and linguistic barriers.

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