Feature: Stockholm Notebook – Creating a Jewish Europe
A 7-year-old educational institution is bringing to life a vision of academic cooperation and Jewish renewal, with students from Russia and Serbia, Ukraine and Poland.
It was a winter afternoon in Stockholm. A misty rain enveloped this northern European city, its 14 islands linked by bridges, boats and lights. With only a couple of hours to go before Shabbat, a small group of intrepid amateur chefs was cooking up a storm at Paideia–The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. a In the brightly lit kitchen upstairs at 21 Nybrogatan Street, around the corner from the Stockholm Jewish Community Center, the students chopped garlic and fried sliced eggplant in olive oil. They arranged salads and hummus in bowls. Guests were coming, and the students wanted to show off their culinary as well as their Jewish learning skills.
Later, when the Shabbat candles burned low, the students delivered divrei Torah. “Imagine a small city in the land of Ur, somewhere in the East of Babylonia,” began Darja Anisimova, 19, a fellow in Paideia’s 2006-2007 class. She recounted how Abraham charged his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac. “What made [Rebekah] entrust herself into the hands of a stranger?” she asked. “How did [her] feelings of insecurity [change] into something so strong and so tangible that you could almost feel it in the air?”
Actually, it is a question Paideia students ask themselves, said Anisimova, who is from Kostroma, Russia. What gave them the courage to leave everything familiar and come to Stockholm for a year of Jewish study?
Paideia (www.paideia-eu.org)—Greek for education that strengthens human nature—is a 7-year-old educational experiment, the brainchild of founding director Barbara Spectre, an Israeli educator and scholar of post-Holocaust Jewish and Christian theology. Each year, around 25 students—Jews and non-Jews—come to Stockholm to spend a year studying the Bible and Talmud under the guidance of scholars. All told, over 100 fellows from more than 25 countries, most of them from the former Soviet bloc—Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Belarus and Russia—have completed the course.
Among the 28 students attending in 2007 are several from Turkey, Bosnia and Norway, countries represented for the first time. Each year, there are also a handful of Israelis and Americans, their inclusion seen as a way to breach the schism between European communities that endured the horrors of World War II and Communism and the rest of the Jewish world.
Paideia’s students range in age from 19 to 64. Those who keep kosher and observe the Sabbath live within walking distance of the school and synagogue; the rest live in a dormitory on a nearby island. All food served at Paideia is kosher.
In the dark winter days, last year’s class discussed Talmud with instructor Mira Balberg or visiting scholar Orit Ilan, both Israelis (most instructors are Israelis), or in havruta (peer learning partners). They studied Hebrew with Frida Schatz or spent free time in the computer room, talking in Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, English, Dutch or German on Internet telephone lines.
Similar to most European institutions of higher education, students do not pay tuition, however, they do cover their own living expenses; financial assistance is available.
The core program has four tracks: general, arts, professional and academic. Each combines traditional textual study with more academic approaches. (There is also a three-year teacher-training course and a summer program.) The language of instruction is English, but Hebrew is taught on three levels. Midyear, students make a three-week study trip to Israel to further strengthen the European-Israeli connection and nurture pro-Israel activism, so essential to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment prevalent in Europe.
Each track has a specific applied dimension. For example, participants in the academic track, which is for college graduates pursuing further research, must write a thesis integrating their field of interest with textual study; professional-track participants secure internships with the Stockholm Jewish community.
Internships, whether in a museum, classroom or synagogue, help students integrate what they learn, thereby building a new generation of committed Jews, said Noa Hermele, who heads Paideia’s one-year course and is himself a graduate. Students have developed and run peer-led Shabbat services at the Conservative Great Synagogue of Stockholm; taught basic Judaism to families at the local Hebrew school; and conducted a Jewish study group for Russian speakers at the Jewish Community Center. Recent Paideia fellow Irit Klein, who comes from secular Kibbutz Kfar Menachem in Israel, worked with local Jewish youth. With her encouragement, several children attended the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation/AJJDC Camp at Szarvas, Hungary, this past summer, where they learned about Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe.
Fellows in the arts track, which joins Jewish studies with literature, film, art, theater or music, exhibit or perform their works during the year. Singer and photographer Justina Fruzinska of Poland, for example, worked on a concert and exhibition of photos while at Paideia.
After returning to Poland, she sang in the Children of the Lodz Ghetto concert, which marked the 60th anniversary of the ghetto’s destruction. Today, Fruzinska teaches in the Lodz branch of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation School while studying English language and literature at Lodz University.
Paideia chooses participants based on their commitment to bolstering Jewish life in Europe. “The one major question applicants have to answer is, ‘How do you see yourself contributing to the future of European Jewish culture?’’’ explained Noomi Weinryb, Paideia’s 26-year-old deputy director. The institution also focuses on the needs of specific countries, taking the majority of its students from different regions each year. “[In 2006, it was] Ukraine; the year before, it was Germany, and the year before that it was Serbia and Montenegro,” Weinryb said. “This way we can build up a critical mass of activists in a region who can then reinforce each other when they return home.” This year the focus is on Poland.
With some survivors of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe only revealing their Jewish identity in the late 1980s and 1990s, after the fall of Communism a new generation must be taught its heritage, said Weinryb. There is an urgent need for trained educators, leaders and activists.
The idea of reclaiming Jewish culture and narrative in Europe is compelling, added Spectre, but the students of Paideia are themselves a mosaic of narratives.
Petr Papousek, 29, a former fellow from the Czech Republic, is a case in point. Several years ago, his country’s Jewish community began sending him to gatherings of Jews in Europe and to Israel. At Paideia, he said he “learned about halakha… Talmud, what is Mishna, what it is to feel Jewish.”
He returned to his hometown city of Olomouc to head its 135-member Jewish community; he is also a board member of the European Jewish Community Council. Papousek believes the future will not be easy. “The Shoah and the Communist regime did a lot of damage,” he said. “There are [another] 40 halakhic Jews in my town. They don’t want to be in the community. Maybe they are afraid to be identified as Jews…or they feel completely Czech.”
His maternal grandfather, Milos Dobry, does identify as a Jew. “My grandfather is happy that I found my way to the Jewish community,” Papousek said. “He likes that I am running the Jewish community, because he was the secretary before me.”
Paideia graduate Valts Apinis, 29, who is from Latvia, is now executive director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia in Riga. A lecturer in biblical archaeology, he is working on a book on Jewish tradition. Lidija Levi of Serbia is studying German language and literature at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. She has lectured at the Balkan Jewish Text Forum, an educational initiative she started with another Paideia alumnus.
“[Paideia] has had a major impact in the reawakening of Jewish life and ideas in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and Russia,” said historian Diana Pinto, a board member who lives in Paris.
Closer to home, Stockholm native and Paideia fellow Rut Friedman, 33, runs the community’s Hebrew school. She sees education as a bulwark against intermarriage and assimilation—a serious issue in Sweden’s stable but aging Jewish population of 20,000. “If we don’t get…knowledge,” she said, “we are going to disappear.”
Yet with Paideia’s help, interest may resurface. Computer consultant Magnus Lundberg, 28, who lives in Stockholm, converted to Judaism several years ago and came to Paideia to further pursue his Jewish studies. He recently cofounded the nonpartisan Israel Group, which visits public schools to present facts about the Middle East conflict.
“It’s amazing what happens when you study…with people who are very different from yourself,” he said.
“The Jewish community in Sweden has an unbroken tradition; in the Soviet Union, it was broken,” said Yelena Skorobogatova, who was born in 1971 in Zaporozhie, Ukraine. She came to Paideia after studying with Orthodox and Reform rabbis and leading services and Torah classes for a small Reform congregation in her hometown.
“When I worked for the first time, I [was called] ‘dirty Jew,’” she recalled. “And maybe this was the reason for my interest. A friend said, thanks to anti-Semitism, we don’t forget we are Jewish.”
Darja Anisimova’s Jewish maternal grandfather introduced her to the Jewish community of Kostroma when she was 15. Today, she is considering conversion.
“The best thing I like about Paideia is that you can join it at any point in your development,” she said. Anisimova plans to start a bat mitzva class for unaffiliated women in her hometown.
For Americans, Paideia provides an education about European Jewry. “Like many Jewish Americans, I was ethnocentric…my perception of a Jewish future revolved around America and Israel,” said Jess Minnen, 25, who came to Paideia from St. Louis, Missouri. “I thought of Europe as a place where Jews…died. Now I know there is a Jewish future in Europe.
“Paideia became a mini-Europe, with Jews, non-Jews, Muslims and Christians all interested in learning together,” Minnen added. “It is the proof…of what Europe should be.”
Amina Avdovic, who attended Paideia three years ago, is a Muslim scholar from Germany. She is one of the three to four non-Jews who attend each year, mainly academics involved in Jewish studies. Avdovic feels Paideia gave her deeper insight into Jewish texts and culture, preparing her for further studies in comparative religion.
Today, she teaches at the Freie Universität Berlin and is exploring the image of the female in Jewish and Islamic traditions. Last spring, she returned to Paideia to teach a course on Jewish-Muslim relations.
“Hopefully, Muslim Paideias will emerge one day, hence the importance of [having] some Muslim students in its ranks,” Pinto said.
The best way to build ties between Jews in Europe and Israel is through academic and cultural connections, Spectre said. At Paideia, exchange between European students and Israeli scholars is “revelatory” on both sides. “The story of what is happening in Europe today changes all our narratives,” she commented. “It is a testimony to the resilience of these people and their culture. Being part of that has been a profoundly moving experience for me.”
Like the age-old narrative that is the theme of Darja Anisimova’s d’var Torah, the story is modern as well.
Rebekah, explained Anisimova, could have refused to go with Eliezer. “Nobody forced her,” she said. “[She] consciously stepped into her new life, open for challenges and change, ready to leave everything behind and face an entirely new reality; ready to act, ready to live.”
Rebekah is a role model, said Anisimova, for Paideia students, who are on their way toward making a difference in Europe.
Facing the Past
Paideia may be seen as a small ray of hope for post-Holocaust European Jewry, but it was born out of a dark revelation—the acknowledgment that Sweden’s supposed neutrality during World War II was not all it seemed.
The country did accept 8,000 Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Denmark, and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved thousands of Hungarian Jews by issuing protective passports that identified the bearers as Swedish nationals. But a 1998 United States government report showed Sweden sold iron ore and ball bearings to the Germans. “Sweden was not involved [in persecuting Jews],” notes Gabriel Urwitz, a local businessman and Jewish community leader, “but [the Swedes] felt a moral guilt for collaborating with the Nazis as long as they did.”
In 2000, Sweden launched its Living History Project educational program and hosted The Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust. But behind the scenes, the government was asking, “Is this enough?” Sweden was interested in supporting a fresh enterprise, Urwitz says.
Jewish community leaders asked well-known Israeli educator Barbara Spectre (above) to write a proposal for a new sort of educational institution; she had come to Stockholm when her husband, Philip Spectre, former head of the Masorti movement in Israel, was appointed rabbi of the city’s only Conservative congregation. Jan Eliasson, then state secretary of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, brought her proposal to the attention of the government. Eliasson, now United Nations special envoy to Sudan, easily won Foreign Ministry support. The government gave Paideia $5 million in seed money and The Wallenberg Family Foundation followed suit with $2.5 million. Additional funding has come from private industry and organizations such as the United Jewish Communities.
For Eliasson, who is not Jewish, supporting Paideia “has to do with trying to…revive a part of European history that is absolutely vital and also to increase the sense of pride in their roots among Jewish people in Europe, especially among young people,” he says.
“We are proud, of course, to have had Raoul Wallenberg in our ranks…,” he adds, “but we could have done more.”
“[Sweden’s decision] is historic…. We have proved them to be right, because of the quality of the program,” says Lena Posner-Körösi, president of the Jewish Community of Stockholm and newly elected president of the Council for Jewish Communities in Sweden. “I am very proud to be part of this. But it’s a journey.” —T.A.