JEWISH HERITAGE Manfred Gerstenfeld



This was originally published at INN and republished here with the author’s consent.

Netherlands: From Social Work to Community Building

Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Hans Vuijsje

“Only 16% of the 52,000 Jews in the Netherlands are affiliated with one of the three religious community organizations – the Ashkenazi NIK, the Liberal LJG and the Portuguese PIG. These data result from a major demographic study undertaken in 2009 by the Dutch Jewish Social Organization (JMW).[1] However, 90% of those interviewed said: ‘For me, being Jewish – sometimes in general, or in specific situations – plays an important role.’ The demographic study also showed that people’s bond to Judaism is often an emotional one related to the Second World War. Yet at the same time, its religious dimension is very limited.

“Only 4% of those interviewed claim they have no attachment to Judaism. It has to be stressed that in this study, a broad definition of being Jewish was used. Included in the figure of 52,000 Jews are all people in The Netherlands who have a Jewish mother or father.”

Hans Vuijsje has been the Director General of JMW since 1997. From 1982, he has been working for Jewish organizations starting with care for the elderly. In 1989 he became Deputy Director, Social Assistance of the JMW.

When asked where ‘affiliated’ and ‘unaffiliated’ Jews meet each other, Vuijsje replies: “Members of the religious organizations live mainly in and around Amsterdam. In that area, there are many opportunities to meet other Jews. For Jews living in the periphery, the situation is more complex.

“There are some annual events which many Jews attend. One is the annual “Yom HaFootball” – a day where the Jews play soccer. If the weather is good, there may be 2,000 people present. These are both ‘affiliated” and ‘unaffiliated’ Jews. The annual Jewish film festival and the Jewish music festival also draw a big crowd.

“The percentage of Jews in Dutch general society is minimal – about 3 in every 1,000. But included among the friends of many people with a Jewish background, there is a relatively large number of Jews. This keeps their bond with Judaism.

“We asked ourselves how will Judaism be passed onto the next generation? Among the parents of the participants in our study, 52% have a Jewish partner. Among the respondents themselves, it is 44%. But among their children, it is only 26% and among the grandchildren, it may be around 14%. One thus sees an increasing intermingling of Jewish and non-Jewish families. At home on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, many have non-Jewish family members at their table. One could call these ‘the extended Jewish family.’

“I proposed within JMW the Jonet Project, which aims at everyone with a Jewish background along with their partners and family members. This includes non-Jews. The project’s goal is to create a situation where the peripheral group can also participate in activities organized in the Jewish part of the Netherlands. We do so with the hope that these people will become more interested in Judaism. They may then perhaps pass on something of it to their children.

“Jonet, in which several Jewish organizations collaborate, will mainly consist of a website and a variety of social media activities. There will also be a partly closed chat room where people can communicate which each other. JMW already has a dating site, ‘Jingles’ which is very active. This will be integrated into Jonet. There will furthermore be a virtual market to advertise Jewish products and businesses. All this will permit more Jews to contact each other.

“In addition, it is our plan to organize an open activity once a year on a large scale. The idea is that this place will provide a very wide offering of information about Jewish culture. At the same time, there will be a Jewish street carnival – an area with music and booths where one can learn about various Jewish activities. In addition, this may be combined with the Jewish film festival and the music festival.

“Our original activities which are social services also create a bond with Judaism. We expect that demand for social services by Jews will be considerably less in the future compared to the past 60 years. For that reason also, community building will take on a more important role.

“The Jewish community in the Netherlands consists for the most part of elderly people and those born during the post-war baby boom. Their social and economic positions are relatively good. A recession will thus not hit them too hard. Our vision for the future is that there will still be reasonable affluence and that the Jewish community sense will dominate individuality. However, if the recession becomes very bad, we will have to change our scenarios and activities accordingly.”


1.)   Hanna van Solinge & Carlo van Praag , De Joden in Nederland  anno 2009. (Diemen, AMB, 2010). [Dutch]


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