With anti-Semitism rising in Europe and concern mounting over Iran’s nuclear program, Rabbi Bennett Miller came away both optimistic and worried after conversations with Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians in Slovakia and Austria.
Miller was among the Jewish leaders who last month joined World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder on a “pre-mission” to Slovakia and Austria, before joining the annual Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ annual mission to Israel.
“It was a great trip and I was pleased and honored to be there,” said Miller, senior religious leader at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
The trip left Miller concerned about the future of the Jewish community in Europe, but also optimistic after receiving strong government assurances of support for the safety and continued presence of Jews.
In Slovakia they met with President Andrej Kiska, Prime Minister Robert Fico, and Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcák, as well as representatives of the small Jewish community of Bratislava.
“We went there to build the relationship between the American-Jewish community and the leadership of Slovakia’s Jewish community and to tell Slovakian leaders they are important to us and why the [Slovakian Jews] should be important to them as well,” said Miller. “The small Slovakian community is trying to rebuild, and it is vital the Slovakian government knows the Jewish community in America has an interest in its welfare.”
The Slovakian Jewish community was virtually wiped out during the Holocaust and is now largely centered in the capital of Bratislava. Although small, it is growing, said Miller, because the government is encouraging Jewish resettlement.
“They’re restoring some Jewish historical sites,” he said. “They actually have two synagogues, one traditional and one Reform, and each has a rabbi. The Orthodox rabbi is from Brooklyn and the other rabbi was previously in Crimea, but was trained in London.”
Many services to the community are provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a partner agency of Jewish Federations of North America.
The restoration of Jewish life is part of the overall rebuilding of the country’s economy, which includes an emphasis on tourism, said Miller. Jewish sites are “a big draw.”
The rabbi said government leaders made a point of proclaiming the country’s support and strong trade relations with Israel.
In Vienna, where Jewish life was also decimated by the Shoa, the group found a growing community of about 8,000 with two “very successful and highly populated” Jewish schools — one run by the community and the other by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. The community also boasts numerous synagogues of various denominations and a “beautiful” Jewish museum.
Nevertheless, said Miller, “robust and vibrant” community members “told us they were concerned about the future because of the rise of militant Islam.”
While in Vienna, the group also met with both secular and Jewish journalists for “good and open conversation” about anti-Semitism in Europe, Islamist terrorism, and coverage of Israel and the Middle East.
“Their position was that anti-Semitism was not something they were prepared to deny, but it is not at the same level there as in France and England,” said Miller.
The leader of the French-Jewish community joined the mission for Shabbat dinner, and mission members also met with former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and with high-level officials from the U.S. embassy. The visitors learned of the close relationship between the local Jewish community and the embassy, whose staff view them, said Miller, as “kind of having a protective status” on behalf of the community. Lauder is the former U.S. ambassador to Austria.
At the massive UN International Centre, Miller said, they engaged in frank dialogue about Iran’s nuclear ambitions with officials of the energy administration from various nations, including the United States and Russia.
“There was great concern on their part regarding whether or not a good deal could be carved out with Iran,” said Miller, “and I think we’ll know the answer to that in a couple of weeks.”
Miller summed up his mixed feelings.
“I suspect trouble is truly ahead for us in Europe, in Israel, and in America, too,” he said. “But Jews are a people who always possess a long view of time. We have survived dark periods before, and I have no doubt we will survive this time too.”