This year marks the 20th anniversary of the European Day of Jewish Culture, a pan-European festival of tourism and education centered on Jewish built heritage. Taking place in more than two dozen countries across the continent, the EDJC has become Europe’s most successful cross-border Jewish cultural initiative and officially kicks off this year on September 1.
JHE Director Ruth Ellen Gruber took part in the meeting in January 1999 that established the EDJC and looks back here at its inception and evolution.
Reflecting on the European Day of Jewish Culture, 20 Years On
By Ruth Ellen Gruber
The EDJC was founded following a landmark conference on Jewish heritage in Europe that had been convened in Paris by the French Ministry of Culture in January 1999.
In the wake of the Holocaust, Jewish built heritage in Europe was largely ignored — or dismissed — until the latter part of the 1980s. This was particularly true in communist Eastern Europe but also manifest in western European countries.
The Paris meeting was a follow-up to the first ever conference on the subject, “The Future of Jewish Monuments,” held in New York in 1990 after the fall of communism opened up Europe’s historic Jewish heartland to scholars, preservationists, and tourists.
An overriding aim of many Jewish heritage projects then – and now – has been to stress the place of Jewish history, heritage and culture as an integral part of European history, culture and heritage as a whole. At the Paris meeting, the then-French Culture Minister voiced this succinctly: “Jewish heritage in France is also the heritage of all the French people, just as the cathedrals of France also belong to French Jews.”
The EDJC has been one of the most ambitious projects along these lines. Aimed mainly at local people, it has sought to educate about the role of Jewish heritage, culture, and history in local, regional, and Europe-wide context, in order to demystify the Jewish world and promote understanding.
Loosely coordinated by the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture (AEPJ), it encompasses hundreds of events in more than two dozen countries, from Spain to Sweden, from the United Kingdom to Ukraine. Synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, ritual baths, Jewish museums, and other sites of Jewish heritage are opened to the public, accompanied by seminars, exhibits, lectures, book fairs, art installations, concerts, guided tours and other events.
This year’s theme is the 20th anniversary itself.
The EDJC in fact grew out of a local “Open Doors” initiative in the French region of Alsace that had begun in 1996 following years of cooperation between the public Bas-Rhin Tourist Development Agency (ADT) in Strasbourg and B’nai B’rith. Their aim was to develop a strategy to put Jewish heritage on the map as a major tourist attraction in Alsace, while remaining responsive to Jewish sensibilities.
Organizers from both bodies — Catherine Lehman from the ADT and Claude Bloch from B’nai B’rith — gave an impressive presentation at the 1999 Paris conference. It was so effective that how to expand the Alsace Open Doors on the pan-European level became one of the key topics of an informal meeting of experts held after the conference itself to chart strategies for the future promotion and preservation of Jewish heritage. (I wrote about this in detail in my book Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.)
I was one of the two dozen international experts who took part in the day-long consultation. More than half of them, like me, are still involved in Jewish heritage work: they include Italy’s Annie Sacerdoti, Spain’s Assumpcio Hosta, Elias Messinas in Greece and Israel, Leo Pavlat in the Czech Republic, Lena Bergman in Poland, Samuel D. Gruber in the U.S., Boris Khaimovich in Eastern Europe and Israel, as well as others.
Our aim was to define European-wide medium- and long-term priorities, and in particular strategize about what could be done in a coordinated way.
Creating a European-wide Day of Jewish Culture along the lines of the Alsace initiative was one of a list of preliminary priorities we agreed on. That year, in fact, coordinated events took place in five countries — France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland — as an experimental step toward expanding the Day Europe-wide.
That first experiment was so successful that only a year later it had grown into a full-fledged European Day of Jewish Culture that involved more than 500 events in 16 countries.
The 2000 EDJC was a resounding success — it drew as many as 150,000 people – more than 43,000 of them in Italy alone, a country with a Jewish population of only 30,000.
Amos Luzzatto, then president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), called it “the first event that really politically unified European Jewry [and] also was a politically important event for Europe as a whole.”
By now, the EDJC is embedded in the annual cultural calendar of many countries. Last year, events were held in more than 420 cities in 28 countries, drawing more than 179,000 people. Some countries — like Italy — stage events in dozens of countries; others have only a few.
But ECJC events also sprawl far beyond the official “Day” – the first Sunday in September — with some programs stretching well into the autumn. And there are also separate, but related, spin-offs in some countries, such as the Day of Jewish Monuments held in the Czech Republic each August.
In the 20 years since the first EDJC, much has changed.
The past two decades have seen important efforts to restore synagogues and Jewish cemeteries; major Jewish museums have been opened; dozens of Jewish festivals take place each year; and Jewish life, too, has seen a revival in post-Communist countries. Jewish heritage tourism has become an established niche, and there are NGOs, web sites, Facebook pages, and Instagram feeds dedicated to Jewish heritage issues and individual projects, including fund-raising and volunteer actions to clean up or restore the many still-neglected sites.
Our Jewish Heritage Europe web site was launched in 2012 to try to keep track and promote information exchange about Jewish heritage developments. You only have to explore our site to see the range, and depth, of what goes on. Indeed, it’s hard to keep up!
But political changes, too, have made their mark: this anniversary year, EDJC organizers stress that the Day’s message is more important than ever at a time of renewed populism, xenophobia, and antisemitism:
We believe that this year’s 20th edition is particularly important. Due to the rise of the extreme right in Europe, we are faced with a serious threat. In reaction to this rise of anti-Semitism, the EDJC acts as a strong defender of diversity and coexistence. We see the promotion of Jewish cultural heritage, and as it being an integral part of European history, as a key factor in the prevention of anti-Semitic stereotypes and prejudices taking root and increasing resilience against intolerance.
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August 21, 2019
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Ruth Ellen Gruber is the Director of Jewish Heritage Europe. An award-winning writer, she has been involved in Jewish heritage work for three decades and is the author of several key books on Jewish heritage, travel, and cultural issues.