Letter from Amsterdam: Coming to Terms With Home
The Dutch Jewish community was decimated under the Nazis. Today, the Liberal congregation in Amsterdam is moving optimistically into the future.
Lila Grunfeld walks up to the bima in her fuzzy Ugg boots. In a sweet voice, she chants her Torah portion and haftara before family, friends and members of the Liberaal Joodse Gemeente (Liberal Jewish Community) of Amsterdam.
After the service, Lila’s aunt Zippora Abram, who prepared Lila for her bat mitzva, observes that her niece “didn’t do this for the presents. She’s donating 25 percent of her gifts to the new shul [building].”
That kind of devotion has helped Amsterdam’s Progressive Jewish congregation endure and thrive since it was founded in 1931. Even under the Nazis, who occupied the city in May 1940 until their defeat five years later, there were bright spots. In 1941, before the Nazi deportation of Jews began, the Protestants invited the homeless Jewish congregation into their Pentecostal church after the Nazi shut down their synagogue. After the war, the handful of Holocaust survivors decided to rebuild. Today the kehila boasts 850 member families.
It has also come full circle: Having outgrown its postwar home, built in 1961, it is temporarily back in the building that once offered it sanctuary, as members await the completion of a new synagogue-center complex on Zuidelijke Wandelweg, just outside the Rivierenbuurt area. The Pentecostal church, however, no longer occupies the building, now owned by two synagogue members.
“It’s a whim of history” to be back in the former church building, says Dr. Ron van der Wieken, 63, a cardiologist and chairman of the congregation.
Evidence of that near-past still exists. Rabbi Menno ten Brink, 51, the congregation’s spiritual leader since 2004, points to “a secret trap door [in the staircase to his office] where Jews were hidden” during the war.
Members have been patiently anticipating their move into their new home. After all, “we waited for 40 years in the desert,” jokes Matty van Eldik, 65, assistant head of the Talmoed Tora Amsterdam, the community’s Sunday school.
Construction of the rectangular, gray, four-story synagogue—with a wall of windows that resembles a menora—will be completed in June, two years after the old one was demolished; the groundbreaking took place in December 2008.
“Never throw out your shoes before you have a new pair, but that’s just what we did,” says Van der Wieken humorously.
The building will be dedicated before Rosh Hashana, says Ten Brink. It will include a small and large sanctuary, social halls, classrooms, a study center and youth room; a center for interfaith dialogue and offices for the synagogue and Union for Progressive Judaism in the Netherlands (www.verbond.eu; the Web site links to the Amsterdam synagogue, but is mostly in Dutch). The Amsterdam synagogue is the largest of the nine Progressive congregations in the country.
There will also be a mikve, for conversions as well as for women’s monthly immersions, before getting married, after childbirth or after a family death. “There are also people who want to go to the mikve…after receiving a get [Jewish divorce] and just to mark a transition in life,” says Ten Brink.
“I am looking forward to the mikve,” says Etienne Denneboom, 53, an assistant to Ten Brink. “It can deepen the religious experience, the interwovenness between daily life and Jewish religious life.”
Designed by architect Bjarne Mastenbroek, the building will cost about $16 million, with more than $1.4 million coming from the state, which distributes funds that had been stolen from Dutch Jews who were deported during World War II. The community needs $294,000 to meet its goal.
The new beginning marks a triumph over difficulties: Until recently, the Progressive community—whose members are doctors, lawyers, psychologists and businesspeople—lacked teachers and funding. Today, 160 children, ages 4 to 13, attend the Sunday Talmoed Tora, which opened in 1993. “The challenge is to keep that and enlarge it with the new building,” says Ten Brink. A new youth leader organizes monthly activities for teens. And the congregation regularly hosts a Jewish learning group for young adults ages 18 and up, drawing both Orthodox-affiliated and Liberal participants.
The most disconcerting problem the community faces today is the increased incidents of anti-Semitism among Holland’s large Muslim population, mostly of Moroccan origin.
A few cases underscore the issue: In the fall of 2008, a young man wearing a kippa was assaulted by teens, who called him a kankerjood (rotten Jew) and kicked him until he managed to flee. In January 2009, a 16-year-old girl wearing a Star of David was knocked down on the street and kicked by several assailants who also used anti-Semitic slurs; a Muslim girl broke up the attack.
“In both these cases…onlookers…failed to take any action at all; only the one girl…called out,” says Elise Friedmann, an expert on anti-Semitism at the Hague-based Center for Information and Documentation Israel; the CIDI Web site (www.cidi.nl) has a list of tips on what to do in such situations. Friedmann recommends that youth take a self-defense course “where they are taught to assess situations.”
Anti-Semitic incidents tend to rise “whenever there is some sort of spectacular action by Israel,” Friedmann observes. In 2008, there were 108 reported anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from e-mails to actual violence. But during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza—from December 27, 2008, to January 23, 2009—there were 98 incidents.
Dina Schrijver, 20, says she is not fearful, but she recently took a course to be a shomer, one of several volunteers guarding the synagogue. “It is bad that there have to be people guarding the synagogue,” she says, “but this is something I can do for the community.” Ten Brink fights intergroup tension through the Dialogue Center, a continuation of the dialogue committee he created six years ago. “We try to break [stereotypes] and emphasize that we are all living here in Holland,” he says, “and we have nothing to do with [the events in] Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“It is difficult…to get all the Islamic organizations around the table, because they are so split among themselves,” he adds. “But there are some people who really want to…work together for an open and respectful and tolerant society.”
In addition to incidents of bias, the Jewish community lives with constant reminders of the Nazi past. Of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands prior to the war—80,000 of them in Amsterdam (10 percent of the city’s population)—some 100,000 were murdered. An estimated 25,000 Jews survived in hiding, among them at least 4,500 children. About one-third of those in hiding were discovered, arrested and deported. In all, at least 80 percent of the prewar Dutch Jewish community perished.
“Sometimes it feels like an obsession,” says Van der Wieken. “I try not to let it run my life, but the ugly past comes up very naturally.”
Stark reminders include the Anne Frank House (011-31-20-556-7105; www.annefrank.org) at 263 Prinsengracht, where the Frank and Van Pels families hid from the Nazis until they were betrayed. A small statue of Anne is located on the Merwedeplein square, where she lived before going into hiding. The Auschwitz Memorial in Wertheim Park by Dutch artist Jan Wolkers consists of six broken mirrors, recalling the deportation of Jews.
The community’s connections with Israel are strong—some younger members have made aliya—but others have moved there and then returned home. “I also tried it,” says Zippora Abram, 39, who came back to Holland for friends and family.
For today’s Jewish community, the most important task is to counter assimilation. “There are 20,000 Jews running around out there who are not connected,” says Ten Brink. “We would like to attract more of them, fill their Jewish needs.”
Van der Wieken recently hosted an open house at the synagogue for unaffiliated Jews; about 100 people came and, recently, 50 new families joined the congregation. Van der Wieken writes a column in the general Jewish community’s paper, the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad (the New Israelite Weekly). About a recent topic—”intra-Jewish problems, Liberal and Orthodox”—Van der Wieken says: “I try to make a positive statement about Liberal Judaism without maligning the Orthodox…to say that there are many ways to be Jewish and Liberalism is as authentically Jewish as Orthodoxy. They should be able to coexist, if only for the future of the Jewish community.”
Orthodox Jewish leaders “don’t accept our rabbis as rabbis, and they consider us to be second-hand Jews,” says Ten Brink. “[But] on a…personal basis, there are a lot of contacts between members of the congregation and also rabbis.”
There are about 30,000 Jews in the Netherlands who meet the Orthodox halakhic definition of Jewishness (matrilineal descent), according to the American Jewish Yearbook of 2006. Another 10,000 people identify Jewishly without meeting that requirement. Progressive Judaism has an estimated 3,500 members.
About 40 percent of Dutch Jews live in Amsterdam. (The family of the city’s mayor, Job Cohen, was affiliated with the Liberal community.) Most affiliated Jews in Amsterdam—some 3,000—belong to the city’s 10 Ashkenazic Orthodox congregations; about 270 families are members of the two traditional Sefardic synagogues.
Also in Amsterdam is Beit Ha-Chidush, a small nontraditional congregation founded in 1995 that meets in the Uilenburger Synagogue in the heart of old Amsterdam (www.beithachidush.nl). It is linked with the United States-based Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist movements.
The Jewish population of Amsterdam has descendants of Conversos and Sefardim who fled the Spanish Inquisition (end of the 15th and early 16th centuries) and Ashkenazim who fled pogroms (17th century). The 20th century brought German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Coming from the birthplace of Reform Judaism, they brought new life to Amsterdam’s then-small Reform congregation.
“It became 98-percent German,” says Eddy Mannheim, who was born in Berlin in 1929 and fled Germany with his family in 1933.
After the war, the Jewish community was faced with the task of rebuilding. First, they had to overcome profound reservations. Berlin-born Robert Lachotzky, 95, who survived in hiding in the city of Utrecht in the country’s north, remembers the doubts plaguing a handful of friends right after the war: “We were five Jews, sitting in a restaurant, and we had to decide to stay on or not with the [Liberal] synagogue. Three said, ‘We will go on’ and two said, ‘No.’ Of course, I said yes.”
“It’s a legendary story: He voted in favor, and that is why we still exist,” says Ten Brink.
Rabbi Jacob Soetendorp, who served as rabbi from 1954 to 1976, had survived with his wife in hiding; under his leadership, the synagogue “grew and grew,” says Lachotzky. By the late 1990s, the community decided a larger building was needed.
“The outside of the first synagogue was beautiful, with two pillars supporting the Ten Commandments,” recalls Van der Wieken, who married Rosa van Leeuw there. “But the inside was not very practical. We [had grown] explosively.”
Ten Brink had not planned to become a rabbi. In 1978, he was tapped to sing the Kol Nidre service after the cantor lost his voice. Eventually, after studying law, he earned his ordination at the Leo Baeck Institute in London. He took over leadership of the Amsterdam congregation following Swedish-born Rabbi David Lilienthal, who had served from 1971 to 2004.”We are still trying to rebuild,” says Lilienthal, who today is dean of studies at the Levisson Instituut, founded in 2002 with the aim to train liberal rabbis in the Netherlands. Currently, there are seven students, but rabbinical posts are scarce in Holland, Lilienthal said.
“There is so little left of [the knowledge of Judaism that] was once there,” he says.
What is there, however, is a sense of optimism and of continuity. Lilienthal encourages Ten Brink, and Ten Brink has seen his former pupils become teachers in the Talmoed Tora.
“When I started as head of education at the Talmoed Tora, many times I could not find teachers,” recalls Ina Vyzelman, director of the program. “Now we have [teenage] assistants and assistant teachers. Today, we always have teachers.”
“I see the continuity in our community and it is nice,” says Zippora Abram, an Amsterdam city policy adviser who has two sons, Noam, 6, and Boaz, 7 months old. “I hope it keeps on growing.” Her dream is that her sons will “grow up to be happy and healthy” and “will live a Jewish life.”
But she worries about anti-Semitism. “[Noam] goes to a mixed school that is one-third Muslim, and it is going well now,” she says. “But how about when they are older? What do [the Muslim children] hear at home?”
“There is a transgenerational transference of fear,” says Robert Wurms, who was hidden when he was 2 months old by non-Jewish students in the underground resistance. “And when there is no fear, the problem is ignorance or apathy concerning Jewish identity and heritage.”
Most people are confident, says Lilienthal, but some Jews say, “‘Don’t register me, don’t send post from the community, we will pick it up.'” Why? “‘We have a Moroccan postman.'”
Still, the Jewish community looks to the future, whether in their homeland or in Israel. When Schrijver is asked what her dreams are, she answers: to become a criminologist and find a Jewish husband. “[But] I know almost all the Jewish boys here since they were 4 years old and they are not for me,” she says. So when Schrijver’s parents wanted to know “when are you coming home with a nice boy?” she says, “My boy lives in Israel.”
Many Jews outside Holland are ignorant about life in the country, adds Schrijver. First of all, she’d like to tell them “that not every Dutch person is smoking weed, because that is the first question Americans and French people ask [because it is legal in the Netherlands],” she jokes. “And then I will tell them about Jewish life: that there is an Orthodox way and a Reform Liberal way, and you can choose a middle way, like I do.” Schrijver’s family is rare in the Liberal community: They keep kosher and are fully Sabbath observant.
Van der Wieken, too, has been confronted with questions, particularly during trips to visit his in-laws in Israel. Once, after hearing his and his wife’s shattering wartime stories, a friendly stranger asked: “And you call [Holland] home?”
“I did not know what to tell him then,” he recalls, pausing to view the construction site of the new synagogue, bordered by canals and shrouded in an drizzle. “And I am still not sure. But, yes, this is for the time being the place I call home.” H