Along the coast of Norway, not far from North Cape, Europe's northernmost point, is the quaint city of Trondheim. There, among the troll dolls and fishing paraphernalia is a most unusual sight: a synagogue.
Though a minyan's hard to come by – the shul is open only on Friday nights, weather-permitting – the president struggles valiantly to keep the place open.
A survivor of Auschwitz, he proudly displays the compact but concise Holocaust museum in the synagogue's anteroom, and explains that he returned after the war with the express purpose of keeping the tiny shul open.
When questioned why he bothers, "We are here as much to educate the non-Jews as the Jews themselves."
In Europe, I witness this bizarre syndrome over and over again: Judaism without Jews. In Copenhagen's main synagogue, the chazzan has a booming voice and the gabbai sports a regal top-hat as he dispenses the honors each Shabbat.
More than 150 people fill the sanctuary. But when I ask one local member how many of the congregants present actually live in town, he chuckles and says, "20 or 30, if we are lucky." As if to prove his point, at morning services the following day, seven show up.
The story is repeated in Tallin, Estonia, where the Chabad rabbi solicits funds for the building of a new shul and speaks of the 200 children enrolled in the synagogue school. Only after being pressed does he admit that "no more than a handful" of the students have two Jewish parents.
In St. Petersburg, millions of dollars are spent refurbishing the regal Choral Synagogue, where the vast majority of visitors are tourists – Jewish and non.
Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in Poland. Though the Nazis' dream of making this once-mighty Jewish metropolis Judenrein has all but been fulfilled – less than 5,000 Jews reside there – Jewish cafes, klezmer groups, theaters and bookstores are again appearing.
The only problem is that the establishments and musicians are all non-Jewish. Even the popular Jewish Festival organized each year in Krakow – bringing Jewish speakers and singers to town with great fanfare – is organized and funded by a gentile Pole who longs for the flavor of yesteryear, whether or not real Jews are part of the package.
You could almost laugh at the goings-on, if there was not a bitter message attached to it all. Try as they might, Europe – which struggled fiercely to rid itself of its Jewish "problem" – cannot turn the clock back. There is neither a point nor a purpose in rebuilding or recreating a Jewish life in Diasporas that have died.
The arrow of history points to only one soil where Jewish life is to be transplanted, and that, of course, is Israel. At the center of the drive to sustain, or even promote, Jewish return to Europe is the Chabad movement. Adhering to the late Rebbe's conviction that no Jew ought ever to be abandoned, Chabad emissaries have set up outposts in every corner of the world a Jew might wander.
When this effort services native or visiting Jews – such as the Jewish community of Venice or Israeli backpackers in Katmandu – it's a noble cause, deserving our praise and support. But when the motivation is to re-establish a Jewish presence in places where Jews were brutally evicted, the effort is misguided.
The thought of spending Jewish money to build shuls and yeshivot in the decimated Diasporas of Europe is sad, even offensive. If, in one period of our history, we were forced to build our "miniature sanctuaries" in far-flung places, that era is mercifully behind us.
We have regained the rightful repository of Jewish nationhood, reclaimed the spiritual center of Jewish life. As the Talmud tells us: "The synagogues of the Exile will all be transplanted to Jerusalem and its suburbs."
We ought to do nothing to deflect that glorious promise. u
Stewart Weiss is director of the Ohel Ari Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, Israel.