Over 70 members – past and present and from far and wide - came together in early December to celebrate all that the IJC has accomplished over the past 20 years. It was a joyous and warm celebration meticulously organized by volunteers Leslie Oversteyns, Pam Meisel and Anneke Silverstein.
We started off the evening in the beautifully decorated event space with Havdalah, followed by words of welcome from President Anu and founding member Howard Blank. During the champagne reception and delicious buffet dinner there were video testimonies from IJC alumni from Edinburgh to New York and Indonesia, interspersed by speeches from alumni and current members. The flow of the evening was led by co-MC’s Sarah W and Mark S.
There were many opportunities to walk down memory lane. Anneke did a great job of reconstructing the IJC story from scant and uneven materials but she met the challenge! A whole wall of the hall of text and photos was dedicated to the history of IJC.
Diana Kanter talked about how the community has been strengthened through all manner of communications and how she hoped to have contributed to some of ‘the glue in building this amazing and innovative community’, which by the way, is the first and only Jewish community she has ever belonged to!
President Emeritus Steve Brummel (pictured here with Howard Blank) took us down a specific memory lane to talk about the 2014 visit of Yale’s a cappella choir Magavet the weekend of the fatal gun attacks at the Brussels Jewish Museum. With Sunday school and their concert planned for the following day, we clearly had to change premises for security reasons and all our carefully laid prior plans were for nothing.
‘But with fancy footwork, much generosity and goodwill, the events were quickly moved to a new location in member homes with minimum fuss and upheaval. The Magevet concert was transformed into a kind of house party with the choir performing in Gilly’s narrow walled garden in Ixelles. People were perched on steps, balconies, stood under trees and sat on the ground. We had no idea at that point of the extent of the threat nor what the future would be and were anxious and grief sticken. Yet, through tears and smiles, we all felt that deeply cathartic moment of the a cappella voices signing Jewish songs reflecting the power and resilience of our IJC community. This is why IJC was created, was needed then and is today still very much needed.’
We highlight extracts from some other speeches….
Richard and Joann Weiner came from the US especially for our event. They were one of the seven founding IJC families. Richard says: ‘Those families, none of whom had any experience founding a shul and, honestly, had no business thinking they could do so, decided just to try because it was important to us. Then the miracles happened: Rabbi Lilienthal agreed to come from Amsterdam once a month to get us started. A remarkable donor offered a spare house. The family of a bat mitzvah student in the U.S. donated a Torah; the young lady chose IJC because she loved chocolate and wanted to come to Brussels to experience its pleasures first-hand.
Our family was honored to have our three children attend IJC Sunday School and to have our son Stephen bar mitzvah’ed here. I tell these stories because the IJC was built on community and audacity. And Jewish community and Jewish audacity – and the vision of IJC leaders like Anu and Bill, Steve, Howard, and the Nijkerks – have sustained IJC for two decades.
It reminds us, as we rekindle the Hannukah lights in the coming days, that Hannukah’s true miracle was not that the lamps burned for eight nights, but rather that the Jews lit them in the first place, somehow confident that they would long burn. And so it was with the founding of the IJC.’
Mikael Garellick had a heartwarming story too. He was raised in a Jewish family in Sweden and came to Brussels in 1994 where he and Olga found it hard to find a Jewish Community that fit their needs. They preferred an English-speaking Community and first frequented the Chabad Centre in Schuman. But as their children Daniel and Elisa reached the age of B’nai Mitzvot, Mikael and Olga realized that they needed to find a community closer to our progressive Jewish beliefs. “As a blessing,” he said, they joined IJC.
At IJC things happen fast; Mikael joined the Board and became a very active IJC member. Mikael recounted how his family made very close friends, were able to keep Jewish traditions, and give their children a strong Jewish identity. This connection, Mikael recounts, allowed his family to “maintain our Jewish identity in Brussels and connect with fellow Jews, which is especially important in the current political climate. Our children left Belgium many years ago, but as a Jewish parent, I will always be grateful to the IJC, which gave our children a strong Jewish foundation.”
Peter and Deborah Goldfein arrived in Brussels in 2016 – their 10th move in 25 years as a military family.
Peter said: ‘After being a member of many small congregations, I’ve found they require a lot of energy, but collective effort can yield some memorably good and strong communities – and that’s how I feel about IJC. There are a few elements such communities have in common.
1. The best congregations commit to giving newcomers a warm welcome.
When we first arrived in IJC this was the case for us. We could feel the energy and enthusiasm of the congregants, and got the sense that people were eager to bring us into the fold. I recall the warm atmosphere at gatherings at the American Womens’ Club – and quickly making connections with other congregants, sharing food, conversations, and good cheer.
2. Strong congregations address the needs and desires of their membership.
We strive to build a community in which everyone feels comfortable and eager to participate providing opportunities for members to live and grow together in their Judaism. It is by doing things together – religious, educational, social - that we build connections which give us the means to support each other. Thanks to Rabbi Brian and the many volunteers – to all of you here, and to those who are not here tonight, who are the anchors of IJC today, and who set the example to inspire others to contribute to IJC starting tomorrow.
3. Strong congregations pull together when times are difficult.
It might be easy to take a congregation for granted when everything seems to be going well; but we have all seen how external factors can challenge our efforts to sustain and grow our community. IJC has had to weather terror attacks, contraction of US and UK businesses in Brussels, the COVID pandemic, political tensions fed by unrest in Israel, rising antisemitism here and abroad and today all the anxiety and uncertainty arising from Israel’s current war against Hamas. And we face rising costs as Congregation Beth Hillel seeks to address chronic financial burdens. I have been impressed with numerous and creative efforts to find solutions but I sense we need to do more. Being a small congregation requires a lot of energy and we must organize and offer more social and cultural activities, and perhaps more events outside the synagogue.
Let this evening allow us celebrate accomplishments which led to 20 years of IJC, and inspire us for the future.’
A great time was had by all – and now all that joy and energy needs to be chanelled towards the next 20 years!