• Madison Jackson

Do you belong to a Jewish Community or community?

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

I remember standing outside the doorway to Stadttempel, the main synagogue of Vienna, Austria, answering the security guard's questions, as was standard protocol before guests could enter the building for Shabbat services.

"Do you belong to a Jewish Community?" the guard asked.


This felt like a trick question.


I had always been actively involved in Jewish life, been a member of a synagogue, celebrated all Jewish holidays. But, I knew that none of those things would answer the question the guard was asking. He wanted to know if I belonged to a Jewish Community with a capital C, something that does not exist in the United States, where I live.


In the United States, when Jews say they are part of a Jewish "community" it means they belong to a broad cultural or religious framework. They could be referring to the community of Jews in their city, their state, the country at large, or the whole world. And, it doesn't necessarily mean someone belongs to a synagogue.


In Europe, that is the case in some situations. But in many other situations, a Jewish Community is an organization called Kultusgemeinde, German for cultural community, or a Gemina, in places such as Poland. These organizations have existed for years before the Holocaust and continue to exist in many places across Europe today.


Most major cities across Europe have organizations called "Communities," such as the Jewish Community of Berlin or the Jewish Community of Amsterdam. People pay membership dues to the Jewish Community, instead of to a synagogue, as happens in the United States.


Jewish Communities can include multiple synagogues, schools, JCCs, libraries, eateries and media outlets. As paying members of a Jewish Community, you have access to any of it's organizations, and, for example, could one week attend one synagogue and another week a different synagogue.


There are both pros and cons to Jewish Communities. On the one hand, the existence of such Jewish Communities has often allowed Jews to better lobby governments on core issues and fight for religious rights. Jews who belong to a Community have been able to bring together their communal resources to hire rabbis, streamline fundraising and care for their poor. Many Jewish Communities receive funding from their city's government and as a state-recognized religious organization the Communities can receive tax-deductible donations. Some European governments have even agreed to allow religious Jewish schools to operate as public schools, as long as they also teach the minimum required curriculum. That means people can get a free education at a Jewish school.


The Jewish Community model is used by a variety of denominations in Europe: there are Orthodox Communities, Masorti Communities, Reform Communities, etc. Each has their own vetting process in terms of how they decide who to admit into their Community. However, this model has pitted multiple Communities in one location against each other for government recognition and funds, and has for years, created tension between Jews in one city or country. The membership fees and other costs to join and be part of a Community can also be quite high.


Like it or not, both the American Jewish community model and the European Jewish Community model have their up-sides and their down-sides. Wherever we live, anywhere in the world, we have heard the expression two Jews, three opinions.” And while this expression is definitely used as a joke, it also has some truth to it.


To the guard in Vienna, I told him I belonged to B'nai Jeshurun Congregation (my synagogue back in Cleveland). Did he have a clue what that was? I doubt it. When he asked the name of my rabbi, and I answered, I doubt he had ever heard of him either. But he seemed to consider my answers good enough and I was allowed into the synagogue for Friday night services.



The entrance to my synagogue, B'nai Jeshurun Congregation


While my idea of community may have been different than the Community I was truly being asked about, the experience made me happy to confirm my connection to a Jewish community somewhere, whatever that meant to me.

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