David Ziman at Stonehenge in England.
A security guard was assigned to our group, and we were told to remove our Stars of David and remain vigilant. Not far from where we were staying in Paris, a group of Jewish worshipers was trapped in a synagogue by anti-Semitic marchers. They were scared to leave the building because they feared for their safety. Three weeks before, in late May, there was a shooting at the Jewish Museum in Belgium that left four people dead. This was Europe during the summer of 2014, and I was traveling on a continent where anti-Semitism was rife and widespread.
I participated with 44 other teens in BBYO’s Euro-Continental Discovery. We visited many countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, England, France, Slovenia and Italy, and we spent Shabbat in different synagogues around Europe.
In Amsterdam, we celebrated Shabbat in the Portuguese Synagogue. In Paris, we went to the Liberal Jewish Movement of France synagogue, where the rabbi is one of only two female rabbis in all of France. We were fortunate to spend Shabbat in Venice at the Spanish Synagogue of the Venetian Ghetto, and our final Shabbat in Rome was spent at the Oratorio di Castro Synagogue.
Visiting these sites gave me a rich understanding of Jewish life in Europe and how Judaism is practiced in different communities. The Orthodox synagogues were elaborate and ornate while the progressive ones were simple and less grand. Men and women sat separately in the Orthodox synagogues, and together in the liberal ones. (Photo: The author, left, and Jonathan Behar from BBYO’s Westchester Region.)
Our trip took place during the 50-day war between Israel and Gaza. I read English newspapers about anti-Israel sentiment being demonstrated worldwide with marches and protests in London, Sweden, Germany and South Africa, among other nations. Additionally, I recall reading about how the governments of Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Ecuador and Peru recalled their envoys from Israel.
Traveling through Europe in this context, I thought it best not to flaunt the fact that I was Jewish, particularly while in Paris. I read about how Jews there were targeted, and it made me fear for my welfare. I felt more comfortable in the streets with my friends rather than being on my own. We were watching the Bastille Day parade when we heard about a pro-Palestinian rally taking place nearby. I felt unnerved and rattled although we were reassured that we were safe.
Ironically, there I was on the European continent experiencing anti-Jewish sentiment and concealing my Judaism, when seven decades before, my Jewish ancestors in Europe had been subjected to anti-Jewish sentiment, and even worse — some were even persecuted and murdered — for simply being Jewish. In spite of my discomfort, I did feel extremely fortunate that unlike my ancestors, I was able to leave Paris safely and without fear — safe in the knowledge that I live in a free country and that the Jewish people now have a homeland to which they can flee.
When I returned to New York, I read multiple articles questioning the future of Jewish communities in Europe. Many Jews are emigrating from France. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper in London revealed that 63 percent of British Jewry felt that there might be no future for Jews in the United Kingdom (U.K.). Being born in the U.K. and having lived in London for the first nine years of my life, I find this fact frightening and devastating. The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe perturbs me, as does the fact that the future of Jews on the Continent is being questioned.
During the trip, my friends and I felt a sense of unity; we stood together as Jews and supported our homeland, Israel, without which Jews worldwide would lose a safe haven.
Experiencing anti-Jewish sentiment strengthened my identity. The fact that Jews felt threatened inspired my fellow travelers and I to feel resolute, and we felt a strong pride in being Jewish. My experiences on my BBYO trip reinforced what I already knew: Never will I take for granted how privileged and fortunate I am to live in a democracy where I am free to practice Judaism, where I can be openly proud to be a Jew, and where I can display my unwavering support for Israel and feel safe doing so.