Excited and nervous on his first day of high school in Leskovac, Serbia, Saša Bakic waited his turn to introduce himself. After he said his name, his new teacher stopped him: “Are you Roma?” she asked. “Let’s make a deal—if you don’t skip school and stay quiet in class, I will pass you with a D.” Stunned and humiliated, Saša tried to protest amidst the class’s laughter, only to be told, “You are all the same.”
The history of the Roma—Europe’s largest minority—is pockmarked with stories of forced assimilation, enslavement, and even attempted genocide during WWII. Today, despite efforts of state and EU policy toward integration, many Roma in Eastern Europe are still mired in systemic poverty and social stigma.
The steady growth of Roma Pentecostalism in Europe, however, is another narrative challenging these sobering realities.
When Saša began attending church at age 8, he received a message of acceptance and encouragement. “The children’s sermons acknowledged that we were outcasts, but that we should love rather than hate,” he remembered, now working to complete his bachelor’s in theology. “The church told us, ‘Let’s make a better image of our community!’”
In Cafe Elfenbein, which opened last year in a trendy Berlin neighborhood, two businessmen wearing yarmulkes — Jewish skullcaps — chat away.
The aroma of freshly brewed coffee and homemade rugelach pastry fills the shop, where a rabbi has certified that all its food is kosher.
The hip addition to the city points to a trend obscured by rising anti-Semitism and terror attacks in France and Denmark that have alienated Jews. In central and Eastern Europe, Jewish life is thriving.
One major reason is that a young and more confident generation is shaping a new Jewish identity.
“Jewish life is flourishing in Berlin and the rest of the country,” said Jutta Wagemann, spokeswoman for the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
The Jewish community in Germany remains small, about 200,000 out of 80 million people. It has grown significantly from its postwar population of 37,000 in 1950 because of immigration from the former Soviet Union. The community is putting its stamp these days on the country’s cultural landscape.
In the East German city of Cottbus, an area known for right-wing extremists, a disused church was recently turned into a synagogue, providing space for the 460 members of the Jewish-Russian community.