In purple stylish glasses, Daniel A. Rothschild was in a peculiar situation this past Sunday when he was holding a velvet-covered Torah scroll in his hands and dancing like the Chasidim around him. On the one hand, this was an affectionate and joyous moment and he was clearly swept up by the excitement. On the other, the event was held in Basel, in the frappe Switzerland not known for outgoing displays of merriment.
But that is exactly why Rothschild, the 56 year-old treasurer of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, cherished every minute of the dedication of the Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center and its new Torah scroll.
While the Basel Jewish community maintains many educational and social institutions and is forever engraved in Jewish history – most notably for hosting the first Zionist Congress in 1897 – the industrial city on the banks of the Rhine River has witnessed a dwindling of its Jewish population in recent years. Three out of Rothschild's four children live in Israel.
That's where Rabbi Zalman and Devorah Wishedski, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Basel, come in.
Arriving from Israel some five years ago, the couple brought an offbeat approach to Jewish outreach in Switzerland by targeting otherwise secular unaffiliated Jews with Shabbat gatherings, holiday awareness campaigns for children and adult-education classes. Most importantly for Rothschild, they brought a human touch.
He explained that what has led the Jewish communal establishment in Basel to endure for so long – it recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of a central synagogue – is its structure and bureaucracy. A strong central administration allowed it to withstand the strong pressures of war and anti-Semitism. But that very model could end up being the Achilles' heel of Jewish communal life, he said.
"We are losing our members to assimilation or immigration to Israel," said Rothschild. "An establishment is not enough today."
Rothschild added that while the community continually tries to appeal to new members, it can't appeal to everyone. Chabad's strength, he said, was its welcome informality and warmth.
Jossi Hess, a member of the Jewish community's board, mostly agreed with his colleague. A long-term resident of the city and an asset manager, he noted a recent influx of Jews as part of the expanding pharmaceutical industry, but lamented the fact that the newcomers refrain from the Jewish scene.
"Whoever does come to Basel does not try to become a member because of the fee involved. People don't want to pay for religion," Hess pointed out. "That is why Chabad has so much success.
"I say that the more we work together, the more we'll accomplish," he continued. Wishedski "is not a competitor, but a good friend."
Still, he was decidedly pessimistic about Jewish future in a city still dealing with entrenched bigotry and intermarriage: "We have a future in the next 40 to 60 years, but it's deteriorating. In most of Europe, the Jewish population is declining."
A Spiritual Charge
Father and son celebrate the new Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center in Basel, Switzerland.
In his address at the Dec. 2 dedication's gala dinner, Rabbi Yitzchok
Schochet, the rabbi of the high-profile synagogue in the Mill Hill section of London's northern suburb of Edgware, put a historical spin on the challenges facing Basel's community. He drew a lesson from the fact that the new building was sponsored by the family of Miami-based philanthropist Sami Rohr in honor of Basel's Feldinger family that sheltered him during World War II.
When Rohr's family fled Lyon in unoccupied France in 1943, they smuggled themselves into Switzerland. His father and mother were taken to a refugee camp in Morgin, while Rohr was sent to a children's home near Basel. Some members of the city's Jewish community took home the refugee children to care for them.
Rohr was welcomed into the home of Shlomo Zalman and Recha Feldinger, who treated him as a complete equal among their children.
"They showed him rare compassion," said Wishedski. "He told me that on his first Shabbos meal with the family, the father asked who is the oldest and when it was clear that Sami was, he enjoyed the privileges of a first son."
Schochet's grandfather, Rabbi Dow Schochet, was the community rabbi who exhibited profound concern for Rohr, even taking him under his wing.
A story told about one boyhood moment has the rabbi asking Rohr why he didn't come to a 6:30 a.m. lesson in Psalms on Shabbat.
"I finally have one day in the week when I can sleep," replied the young Rohr, who attended an advanced secondary school during the week and simultaneously followed a Torah learning regimen prescribed by Schochet.
"You [finally] have a day in the week [when] you can learn Psalms, and you sleep?" the rabbi lovingly rebuked.
Yitzchok Schochet exhorted the Jewish community of today to model the behavior of their forbears more than 60 years ago.
"For some life might be very taxing, whether they're simply caught up in the trappings of a material lifestyle or struggling with a global credit crunch and all of its consequences," said Schochet, "whether they're simply stagnant at their religious level or so utterly assimilated with no trace of Jewish identity.
"Our job, our purpose, our mission statement," he went on, "is not to try and escape into heaven, not to shut ourselves off from the reality of our world today. It's to bring a little heaven down to earth, to open doors and hearts and bring the spice and spirit of Yiddishkeit to anyone and everyone; to indeed bring a universal message of harmony and serenity and stability to Jew and non-Jew alike throughout the world."
The European Jewish Development Fund joined Rohr in sponsoring the new center.