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A Memorable Time Studying Judaism, and More, in Scandinavia

What drew Agnes Kelemen, a young woman involved in Jewish life and heritage in Hungary, to switch climate zones and spend a year in Sweden? Read More

By / March 23, 2015
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shutterstock_236449285I have been interested in pretty much everything Jewish since I was 12, when I started to read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s oeuvre maniacally. Unlike many Jews in my home country, Hungary, I always knew that I was Jewish, there was no shocking “we need to talk, sweetheart” type of coming out in my teenager years. My Jewish (atheist) mother and my non-Jewish (atheist) father tried to bring me up as a “non-denominational” person, but they never treated my mom’s Jewishness as a secret. In fact, we talked about it rather a lot with my mom’s family. My grandfather’s cousin, Aunt Evi, lived in Sweden, since she was brought there by the Red Cross after being liberated from Bergen Belsen in 1945. Due to her story I was brought up with a very appealing image of Sweden, in my mind it was a safe haven of refugees.

I probably heard about Paideia from Aunt Evi since its very beginning (2000), when I was 10. Later on I involved myself more and more into Jewish youth life -as most East Central European Jews, I was a camper and a madricha in the Jewish youth camp in Szarvas. It just felt it natural that at some point I should apply to Paideia. Now I feel happy that I spent the past few months at Paideia and I did not miss this experience in midst of the rush for academic titles.

I have just graduated from the one-year program of Paideia (“The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden”) and now it is probably time to tell what it is. By definition, it is an institution of higher learning of Judaism, a place whose name is not by coincidence; a Greek word, Paideia(meaning education). Actually, each and every word of the institution’s long name is to be emphasized.

The choice of a Greek word for a name reflects the founders’ intention to make it a European institution, functioning in the spirit of a European community. And it is indeed such an institute, a very particular one, since while it provides an almost insanely intensive study program of Jewish texts, religious streams, philosophy and history, it is not a university. The aim of transmitting so much knowledge is not solely for the sake of knowledge, but for the sake of engagement and commitment too. But why is the “European Institute for Jewish Studies” in Sweden?

The answer lies in history. After a conference established in the very end of the 20th century concluding that Sweden’s role in the Second World War was not that innocent as Swedish collective memory had regarded it for decades, the Swedish government initiated the foundation of an institution which should promote Jewish life in Europe. Among other things, I learned during the past year that Sweden’s role in the Second World War was more controversial and complicated than I had thought.

The past few months at Paideia enriched my knowledge immensely, not only in the field of Jewish Studies. They gave me so much more life experience than any other seven-eight months, since I spent them with fellows coming from so many different countries and professional background and from slightly different age groups. I have studied in international settings even before Paideia, but mostly with fellow students with the same field of professional interest. At Paideia I had the chance to get to know really well fellows from nineteen countries. And precisely because we work in different fields (historians, librarians, museum educators, teachers and many more), we can really create new projects that will make a difference in European Jewish life. We were taught by many Israeli scholars, and above that we traveled to Israel for three weeks and visited places where Taglit groups are not taken, such as a rocket-proof indoors playground in Sderot. My expectations were fulfilled and some of them were exceeded.

I heard a lot about Paideia from my family and from alumni before I applied and it always appealed to me. For instance, studying Jewish texts with Muslim fellow students, which happens in Paideia, is an unlikely scenario in my home country, Hungary. Another fantastic aspect of Paideia is –as opposed to universities –the encouragement of cooperation for good causes rather than of competition. I feel privileged for my time at Paideia, which made me believe again that academic studies can go hand in hand with social engagement.

profilk_p_tal_nAgnes Kelemen is a student of Jewish Studies. Her research focus is 20th century European Jewish history. She has worked in the Hungarian Jewish Museum, in the international Jewish youth camp in Szarvas and she volunteered for the Hungarian Jewish Archives.

(Image: A view of Stockholm. TTStudio/Shutterstock.com)