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A Battle for the Soul of a Synagogue


More than 140 angry people filled the small auditorium to the bursting point. "You haven't kept us informed," yelled one man in the audience. "Who let the finances deteriorate?" screamed another. "Why is the rabbi leaving?" asked yet another. "Sit down, all of you," replied Raymond Morini, the meeting's chairman, a man burly enough to play American football.

But this was not football--it was the annual meeting of my synagogue, Beth Hillel in Brussels. The tension was the upshot of a long struggle that would end in the departure of our rabbi and the possible division of our community. It was a fight over money, theology, and relations between state and church, or in this case, state and synagogue. And it was a battle with implications far beyond the confines of the Belgian Jewish community, which numbers only 40,000.

Since Beth Hillel is divided between French and English speakers, their differences highlight a larger cultural clash between the world visions of dirigiste, statist francophones and more pragmatic, market-driven anglophones. So it's fitting that the setting is Brussels, capital of the European Union, where the same type of argument is heard almost daily in the halls of the European Commission. Just now, for example, the French want to use more public funds to bail out farmers hurt by mad cow disease. In the past, the French have also infuriated more market-minded Brits by subsidizing Credit Lyonnais and other state-run outfits.

NEW FREEDOM. Beth Hillel was founded as an alternative to Belgium's Orthodox Jewish Establishment. Judaism is divided into three major branches: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Reform was founded in the 19th century in the German states. It was an attempt to modernize traditional beliefs, making them more compatible with the post-Enlightenment world and new freedoms that allowed Jews to leave the ghetto. In Orthodox synagogues, for example, men and women sit separately, while in Reform they pray together.

Reform groups are the majority in both Britain and the U.S. In their German homeland, of course, they were wiped out in the Holocaust along with their Orthodox brethren. In French-speaking countries, orthodoxy was always the norm, the only branch of Judaism recognized by the state. "You were either Orthodox or nonpracticing," recalls Eric Osterwild, an American lawyer--and Reform Jew--who has lived in Belgium for more than three decades. In 1965, Osterwild and a half-dozen other English speakers began gathering at home for Friday night Shabbat dinners. The group rented a house and invited local French-speakers. The first full-time rabbi was Moroccan-born Albert Dahan, a warm, witty man more at ease in French than English.

Beth Hillel grew fast. For Belgian Jews uncomfortable with orthodoxy, it was the only alternative. In particular, it was the only synagogue that accepted families where one parent was not Jewish. While orthodoxy makes conversion difficult, Beth Hillel, like other Reform synagogues, embraced anybody who wanted to become Jewish. At the same time, Brussels, as the EU's capital, attracted increasing numbers of North American and British lawyers, diplomats, and executives. The Jews among them flocked to what they knew from home, a Reform synagogue.

When I moved to Belgium five years ago, I joined Beth Hillel. I had grown up in a Reform family outside New York City. My wife converted under Reform rules. We wanted our kids to practice among like-minded Jews. In Brussels, Beth Hillel was the only outlet.

It seemed a dynamic community. In the mid-1980s, the congregation had transformed a warehouse in a middle-class area into a synagogue. By last year, it included 384 families, making it the second- largest synagogue in Brussels. But growth posed problems, starting with the core issue of how to finance it. Membership fees were set at about $300 per family per year, far less than in most British or American synagogues. Still, many members never paid up. Anglo-Saxon religious communities are self-financing, whereas most religious institutions on the Continent depend on public support. In Belgium, for example, the government pays the salary for rabbis as well as for priests and pastors. In return for such generosity, the authorities must approve each religious institution's annual budget.

SUDDEN STOP. Not surprisingly, Beth Hillel's francophone leadership began lobbying for government recognition. Under Napoleonic law, Jewish community affairs are regulated by an intermediary group called the Consistoire, which contained only Orthodox members. "When we started, it was like hitting a wall," recalls former board member Willy Pomeranc. Sidestepping the Consistoire, he negotiated directly with the Belgian Interior Ministry, finally gaining recognition for Beth Hillel in 1997. The Belgian government started paying Rabbi Dahan's salary, and Pomeranc and the rest of the Beth Hillel leadership began making plans for further growth. They raised $400,000 to build a new synagogue. They hired an energetic, 28-year-old rabbi named David Meyer. "He looked like the perfect person to bring together the community's various constituencies," recalls Osterwild.

The arrival of the French-born, London-trained Meyer fostered a new dynamism--but also aggravated underlying tensions between older and younger members, and English and French speakers. Older Belgian members, in general, saw the synagogue's mission as simple: to supply a place for prayer. Many of the younger Belgians, along with U.S. and British members, wanted to turn it into a community center. "This is a place to teach, to socialize, not just to pray," says Howard Blank, an American businessman and former synagogue board member. Similarly, the two groups took a different approach to finances. While most English-speaking members paid their dues, fewer French speakers did, and the francophone leadership balked at making fees obligatory. "They told me: `This shouldn't be like a country club where you can only come if you pay,"' recalls Blank.

I soon found myself at the center of this conflict. When I paid for the synagogue to be painted, Rabbi Meyer thanked me for my generosity. But the synagogue's secretary-general, Morini, was angry. He wanted to save all funds for the construction of a new building. And he didn't like the possibility that Americans like me might take control of the organization simply because they had deep pockets. "We can't just be ruled by money," he said.

On most issues, Rabbi Meyer sided with the anglophones. He insisted on stricter rules: Members should pay their dues, the building fund should not be used for day-to-day expenses, and all big decisions taken by the board should be approved by the community. "Things should be clear and clean," he said. Meyer also expanded the synagogue's mission. He organized lectures and other activities, including a student visit to a local refugee center. But the French-speaking leadership griped at Meyer's innovations and what they saw as a certain theological rigidity. Without informing their rabbi, the board tried to purchase land for a new synagogue. And when Meyer found out that the board president, along with former Rabbi Dahan, were thinking of holding parallel services outside the synagogue at member's homes, he could take no more. He resigned last November--provoking the explosive board meeting.

The struggle's denouement is proving painful. Rabbi Dahan, now 63, has returned in a caretaker role. The budget crisis has worsened; without extra income, the synagogue will spend about $30,000 more this year than it takes in.

Optimists believe Beth Hillel still can be salvaged. At a follow-up meeting in February, Osterwild--who has returned as president--formed a new board, with a few thirtysomething members joining the old ones. He is cutting costs. And he has suspended plans to build a new synagogue. By next year, Osterwild hopes to recruit a new, young, bilingual rabbi. "We still can become the most important Jewish community in Belgium," he says.

It will be an uphill battle. About 100 families already have left, and no other English-speaker has agreed to join the new board. A group of English-speakers is considering forming a new synagogue. Since my children attend French-speaking schools, I would prefer staying in a mixed French-English community. But unless a new rabbi is found, I probably will leave, wiser if saddened. The battle for Beth Hillel's soul has taught me a lot, not so much about being Jewish as about living in Europe. By William Echikson

Echikson is based in Brussels.

EDITED BY Edited by George Foy


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