The International Jewish Centre synagogue in Brussels resembles a fortress. Its facade is a windowless concrete wall. The front door is so forbidding and thick that it seems designed to withstand a tank attack. Guests must send in their personal details 10 days in advance and guards check their details before allowing them to enter. Anyone with an Arab or Muslim name is automatically rejected.
In an effort to break down these high walls, the IJC recently launched the inaugural Belgian version of the innovative Know Your Neighbor program. Supported by HIAS, the program recently hosted more than 60 students from a local tourism school. None had ever visited a synagogue. Most have never met a Jew. All arrived with many questions.
“Are all Jews rich?”
“What does kosher mean?”
“Why do Jews oppress Palestinians?”
“What is a kipa?”
“Do Jews believe in the devil?
Know Your Neighbor takes an innovative approach to provide answers. Forget theological heavy introductions to Judaism, most often attempting to avoid divisive, tough subjects. Know Your Neighbors confronts antisemitism and Jewish stereotypes.
The visit starts by explaining the tight security. “It’s for all of us,” the trainers say, “to keep all of us safe.” Jews, too, have to go through the safety perimeter. Unfortunately, Jewish sites are often targeted – remember the 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, which left four dead. The students nod in acceptance.
Students then watch a five-minute film filled with jokes about Jews. The gags range from South Park’s animated insults to all too serious takes on traditional stereotypes – from Jews as money-grubbers to Jews as power-hungry vampires to Jews as the diabolical force behind the spread of COVID.
An animated, if informal, discussion ensues. How many Jews are in Belgium?, the trainers ask.
“A million,” answers one boy.
“No – that’s too much – half a million,” responds a girl.
In fact, an estimated 42,000 Jews live in Belgium. Before the war, there were 60,000. After the Holocaust, only 20,000 were left. Jews would not even fill up the Brussels stadium, the Stade Roi Baudouin, where Belgium’s national football team plays. It has a capacity of 50,000.
On Israel-Palestine, the trainers express sympathy for both Palestinians and Jews – and say, like Belgian Arabs should not be blamed for terrorism, Belgian Jews should not be blamed for a Mideast conflict.
Instead, they emphasize the deep ties between Jews and Arabs – particularly in Morocco from where many Belgian Arabs originate. Although relations suffered after the creation of Israel, with most Jews leaving the Arab world, they are now being restored. Israeli Moroccan Jews enjoy returning to see their old homes – and receive warm welcomes. This insight surprises many of the visitors.
Many questions center on supposed Jewish wealth. When the students hear that Jews, on average, are no richer than the average Belgian, they are surprised. The history of Jews and banking is explained in the European context of how Christian Europe forbade most other professions to Jews.
The conversation turns to Jewish belief. Why do Jewish women wear wigs? What is circumcision? The trainers explain that, just as for Muslims, many Jewish traditions are under attack in Belgium, where almost all kosher slaughter recently was banned.
We move into the sanctuary and Rabbi Brian Doyle takes charge. He unveils the Torah and chants some verses. The students seem transfixed. Before leaving, everyone is offered tea, coffee, and juice, with the Ashkenazi specialty rugelach – baked by a congregant from Antwerp. Everyone leaves satisfied – the synagogue members who have opened their well-secured doors and the students who have met their first living Jews.
In the coming two years, Know Your Neighbor will expand across Europe. A grant from the European Commission and a partnership with HIAS will allow ten synagogues, from Stockholm to Rome, to launch the program. The Brussels test showed that it is a worthwhile exercise. Europe’s Jews must stop hiding behind their secure but forbidding fortress synagogues. They must extend an open hand to their neighbors.