Europe’s Young Masorti Jews Find Their Voice

Liz Oppedijk introduces Marom, a network of young Jews that keeps them connected to the vision and ideology of Masorti Judaism in Europe

by Liz Oppedijk

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Young adults gather before Kabbalat Shabbat at the Festival Kedem, Marom UK's summer festival in London, July 2012.

Young adults gather before Kabbalat Shabbat at the Festival Kedem, Marom UK’s summer festival in London, July 2012.

Every Jewish community leader – no matter where – is preoccupied with how to keep young people involved in Jewish life once they leave home. In Europe and the UK, the group that tries to do just that for Conservative/Masorti young  adults is Marom Europe. The three-year-old organization works to engage Jewish young adults ages 18-35.

It can be an uphill battle, and not only because of the usual challenges involved with engaging this age group. Compared to Conservative Judaism in North America, the Masorti movement in Europe is relatively young – the first community was founded in 1964, and currently about 30 congregations in 10 countries are affiliated. The Masorti community is the smallest stream of Judaism, unlike in North America where Conservative Judaism is a mainstream, well-known and respected movement. Consequently, Masorti Jews in Europe need much more support in expressing themselves and affirming their Jewish identities.

This is especially true for young adults who are passionate about both their Jewish identity and their modern, liberal values.

That’s where Marom comes in. Through grassroot, peer-led groups, it encourages students and young adults to take control of their Jewish lives, build their own communities and remain connected to their heritage. Marom Europe is raising the profile of Masorti Judaism among university students and young adults as a viable way of expressing their Judaism. Currently, there are active Marom groups in London, Budapest, Paris, Madrid, and Valencia, with interest being expressed in Nice, Stockholm, Alicante, and Barcelona.

Established in 2007, Masorti Europe, under which Marom Europe functions, provides essential support for  congregations from Portugal to Poland. A board composed of lay representatives from each country oversees various projects, including clergy placement. Masorti Europe provides a forum for congregations to share and learn from each other by providing key services such as the European Masorti Bet Din (Jewish court), led by Rabbi Chaim Weiner, and lay leadership training programs.

Marom Europe is a network of young adults who feel a connection to the vision and ideology of Masorti Judaism. According to Naomi Magnus, its part-time director, “We are young adults who are passionate about maintaining a strong Jewish identity that combines our tradition and heritage with modern values and life in Europe. In order for Masorti Judaism to grow and thrive across Europe, we need to focus on developing leaders for the future, which is why Marom is such an important organization.” Magnus grew up in the New North London Synagogue, a Masorti congregation, and she was active in the Noam youth movement.

Marom Europe runs two seminars each year where leaders from local groups spend a Shabbat together building relationships, sharing ideas and learning. A different group hosts the seminar each time. The organization focuses on leadership development, which it delivers through special learning seminars. Each December, several leaders attend the Kiyum seminar in Israel, hosted by Masorti Olami, which engages them more deeply in their Jewish identity.

The next leadership seminar, the Marom Europe Social Action Workshop, will take place in London this March. Learning community organizing skills will give participants the ability to strengthen their own communities and build relationships and partner with other ethnic minority groups on issues of shared interest. Hopefully, they will be inspired to use these skills in their own communities as well as to create a joint social action project between countries.

“Leaders usually emerge after attending a Marom Europe seminar or through involvement in their local Jewish communities,” explains Magnus. Every Marom group is different, functioning in a different environment with a different set of issues. As director, Magnus is in regular contact with leaders via Skype, Facebook and email, hearing what’s going on and offering support and guidance. She spends time in each group, often over Shabbat, to understand the community, its makeup and its needs, so she can help them think through community development strategies.

There are other challenges facing Masorti young adults in Europe. For instance, in the UK, non-Orthodox university students often do not feel legitimate or catered to by the Union of Jewish Students and its affiliated Jewish Societies (J-Socs). Orthodox students control much of what Jewish life looks like on campus and often dominate the J-Socs. On some campuses, finding space for an egalitarian minyan is difficult, while Orthodox students are offered premises as a matter of course. There is a growing sense that to be recognized as legitimate Jews in the UK and not labeled as fringe or weird, people must sign up for Orthodox institutions. “It’s amazing how many progressive young adults are choosing Orthodox marriage ceremonies for fear of not being ‘kosher’ or that their children will have problems later in life,” Magnus says.

The transient nature of young adult life is another challenge shared by all organizations catering to this age group. Enthusiastic young leaders move on and take jobs that demand all their time or their life circumstances change.

Finances are also an issue. While Marom Europe is funded to some extent by Marom Olami and Masorti Olami, the necessary local funding can be problematic. Most groups are led by volunteers and, while this fosters a positive ethos of taking responsibility over communal life, it can hinder development. Ideally Marom Europe would like part-time professional leaders in each center, leaders committed to developing activities and relationships to help make these groups sustainable.

Liz Oppedijk holds a Masters in Voluntary Sector Management. She is currently vice president of Masorti Europe, trustee of St. Albans Masorti Synagogue in the UK and managing director of the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy.