Guest shares portraits of ‘thriving’ Vienna

Guest shares portraits of ‘thriving’ Vienna

Photographer Ouriel Morgensztern has documented the resurgence of Jewish life in Vienna.     
Photographer Ouriel Morgensztern has documented the resurgence of Jewish life in Vienna.     

The Jewish population of Vienna, which once numbered 200,000 but was largely decimated by the Holocaust, has sprung back to life as a flourishing community.

The growing community of 8,000 is a mix of Eastern European and Sephardi, Israeli, and religious and Reform Jews. They worship at 16 synagogues, support eight kosher supermarkets, a Jewish museum, kosher restaurants, day schools, and camps. 

Images of that community have been captured by Ouriel Morgensztern, a French-born professional photographer, who settled in Vienna in 2003. 

On Oct. 4, he shared his photos at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, where he was artist-in-residence from Sept. 29 to Oct. 7. During the week, he photographed events in the life of the congregation, including its Sukkot and Simhat Torah celebrations; board meetings; preschool, religious school, and youth group activities; a choir performance; and the rabbi’s tisch

Morgensztern was invited to AEMT by Rabbi Bennett Miller who met him in the spring on a visit to Slovakia and Austria that preceded the annual Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ mission to Israel. 

“We have a lot to learn from a small community that has risen from the ashes in a totally remarkable way,” said Miller in introducing Morgensztern. “The Vienna Jewish community is a thriving Jewish community.”

Morgensztern said the community was originally comprised of returning Holocaust survivors and remained small for a number of years. It was later infused by members of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, expatriates from other European nations, Israelis, and, beginning in the ’90s, a large number from the former Soviet Union.

The Stadttempel, or Central City Temple, built in 1826, is the only one of Vienna’s 94 synagogues not destroyed on Kristallnacht in November 1938. What damage was done to the structure was repaired after the war.

“It was saved because it was in a residential area and they could not burn it down without damaging the rest of the homes,” said Morgensztern. 

The historic shul is favored by Ashkenazi Jews and hosts an annual “open door day” attended by thousands of people of all faiths.

“We have 16 synagogues in Vienna because everyone likes to have the one he wants to go to,” said Morgensztern. “You have one Jew you need two synagogues,” he quipped.

In addition to the kosher supermarkets, the photographer said, regular supermarkets stock some kosher products, such as matza.

Kosher butchers have a peculiar dual role within the Viennese community.

“They double as mohels,” said Morgensztern. “True story: my son was circumcised by a butcher.”

The community’s adult and youth Jewish choirs have toured internationally. The city has seen a strong revival of Yiddish and klezmer music.

Maccabi athletic competitions are run at a Jewish sports center built on property that was seized from its Jewish owners during the Holocaust and that was reluctantly returned to the Jewish community by the Austrian government.

Morgensztern said unlike those in Germany, Jews in Austria have had to fight for the return of seized property because the Austrians “feel they were also victims.” Holocaust history is taught in Austrian schools. 

The Jewish old age home has garnered a reputation as one of the best such institutions in Austria, he said, and as a result, half its residents aren’t Jewish.

Many of the shops in Vienna are owned by Jews from Uzbekistan, who “stick together” with the numerous Jews from the Republic of Georgia.

Morgensztern said he was struck by the minimal security at Anshe Emeth as compared with Jewish institutions in Austria. But, he said, he does not fear for his safety in Austria, where he has non-Jewish neighbors and has worked with many Austrian corporate clients without experiencing anti-Semitism.

Still, he worries. “The migrant crisis in Europe will probably affect a lot of things,” he said, referring to an influx of migrants from Muslim countries. “It will probably affect the Jews not in a good way.”

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