Three years ago, when Rabbi Moshe Garelik was appointed by a committee of senior European Rabbis to set up the Rabbinical Centre of Europe in an office in the heart of Brussels' European Community, he contacted local Chabad emissaries to find out about any Jews working in the complex.
All together, he was told, there were eleven Jewish EU workers involved with the Jewish community in Brussels. "There are upwards of 25,000 people employed in the EU complex," he recalls thinking. "There had to be more than eleven Jews!" So as Garelik and his staff set up the RCE, an organization devoted to assisting European Rabbis and uniting them to an active Jewish voice at the European Union as the continent slowly de-nationalizes and the EU moves to center stage, they kept an eye out for the Jews working around them in the European Community.
As it turned out, there were many more than eleven Jews working in the area, but, says Mrs. Daniela Bankier, a government worker with the budget department of the European Commission, "being openly Jewish in a place like the EU is not easy," and most of them were keeping that quiet. "Jewish identity in Europe still wears the scars of the Holocaust," she observes, "and with anti-Semitism on the rise here, Jews holding government positions in Europe are a far less solid and assertive group than their American counterparts."
Government workers in the EU arrive in Brussels from all over the continent, Bankier says- she herself is from Vienna—and the Jews among them are no exception. "Joining an established Jewish community like the one in Brussels is difficult," she says. "Particularly for diplomats and workers who travel constantly or live here for short stints, there was really no place for them to celebrate Jewishly."
But in recent months, Bankier, her husband and their two young children have joined a developing community of close to 200 Jewish functionaries and officials of the EU and their families brought together by a recently established offshoot of the RCE, the European Jewish Community Centre. Housed, for the time being, in the offices of the RCE, the EJCC is a place "for Jewish employees of the EU to feel at home," says Rabbi Levi Matusof, director of activities at the center. Offering classes on Judaism and holiday programs, with plans for expanded activities including a Jewish library, Shabbat meals and services and children's programming in the coming months, the EJCC is "tailored specifically to the needs of EU workers, combining traditional Judaism with a strong European flavor," says Matusof.
Formally opened during Chanukah of 2002 with an inaugural "EuroChanukah" event that combined a traditional Chanukah party with an exhibit of antique European menorahs, hosted by the President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, the EJCC has since become "a platform for us to meet and reconnect Jewishly in a setting often far removed from Judaism," Daniela Bankier says.
"Ninety percent of the Jews working in the EU were not actively involved in any formal Jewish community events before the EJCC," says Rabbi Garelik, who serves as the center's executive director. From those first eleven names, the EJCC now has an email list of close to 300, with approximately 180 people joining classes and programs on a regular basis, and "it's impossible to know how many more there are," he says. "Part of the center's work is bringing them out to join a celebration of Judaism here."
Last Tuesday, the EJCC, in conjunction with the RCE, hosted "EuroPurim" for some 150 functionaries and diplomats of the EU, including several ambassadors, cabinet representatives, and a delegation from the president of the EU, Romano Prodi. The event honored Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych of Ukraine in appreciation of his support of Jewish activities in the country. A former governor of the Donbass region, Yanukovych has been a long-time source of assistance to various Jewish communities and Rabbis in the Ukraine, particularly Rabbi Pinchus Vishedsky, Chief Rabbi of the Donbass region and Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky, Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, says Matusof.
True to its function as 'a meeting place', EuroPurim at the EJCC offered participants the opportunity to mingle over cocktails following Megilla reading. "The social aspect of the EJCC is very important," Bankier says, "It gives us an opportunity to form ties with each other and create community."
Though EuroPurim was mostly an adults event, Matusof says the EJCC works on reaching all ages. Daniela Bankier's two children are eagerly anticipating the EJCC's upcoming Matza Bakery ("an anomaly for Europe," she says), and Garelik and his wife, Chana, bridge the age gap by bringing families together each week for Shabbat dinners in their home. “Giving Jewish families who are foreign to the city a chance to meet each other and become acquainted with Jewish tradition means a lot,” says Chana, herself a French native. “We want to give this Jewish community a place they can really call their own.”
Reported by R. Wineberg