Dark Days for Jews in Brussels
The terror attacks and subsequent lockdown are having a devastating effect on the community of 15,000 Jews.
The normally busy morning rush hour turned deadly in Brussels on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, when a series of bombings at Brussels’ Zaventem International Airport and the busy Maelbeek metro train station killed 31 and injured hundreds of commuters, many seriously.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the carnage.
Brussels immediately went into a lockdown, with residents warned to stay indoors. It was a familiar echo of the aftermath of the Paris attacks four months earlier, when Belgian officials also asked Brussels residents to stay indoors while police searched for the terrorists, who were thought to have been based in the Belgian capital.
Jewish residents increasingly see little future for Jewish life in their city.
For Brussels’ 15,000-strong Jewish community, the terror attacks and subsequent lockdown are having a devastating effect. In exclusive Aish.com interviews, Jewish residents of Brussels speak of a community that is subdued and fearful, and which increasingly sees little future for Jewish life in their city.
Ever since the May 24, 2014 attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels in which a gunman opened fire, killing four, the Jewish community has been on high alert. “We have a lot of military guards the past few months in front of our Jewish places,” recounts Isabelle Steinkalik to Aish.com. Originally from Paris, Mrs. Steinkalik has lived in Brussels since her marriage 28 years ago, and has seen the community change from being relatively secure to feeling under siege. “It’s sad but If the guards are here, we feel their protection. It's secured,” she explains.
Shimon Bretholz, a Jewish community worker, describes the massive security presence that always accompanies Jewish activities in Brussels differently. “It...massively destroys us all.” The never-ending fear and feeling of always being on high alert are exhausting.
The week of the attack was meant to be a light moment when Brussels Jewish community would come together to celebrate Purim with some high profile communal events. Residents were planning a major Purim party for the whole city and expected a thousand attendees, all hearing the Book of Esther together and celebrating the holiday.
Instead, all public events have been cancelled. In the hours after the attacks, Brussels’ Jewish communal leaders set up a situation room, monitoring the security in their city. "They fear there will be more attacks and (warn against) taking any unnecessary risks,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, CEO of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, explained to Israeli newspapers.
Rabbi Margolin, whose office is located next to the bombed Maelbeek metro station, says, “The Jewish community here in Brussels and in Europe in general is not surprised… We’ve been receiving alerts for a long time now. Despite the shock the city experienced, we were not surprised. Of course, we feel the concern and the pressure, but we were really not surprised by everything that’s going on in the city. It was only a matter of time before such an attack happened.”
“Today was awful, unbelievable, such darkness…” Isabelle Steinkalik recounted to Aish.com. Brussels looked like a “death city. People are afraid. When it was just terrorism against Jewish people they didn’t so deeply care. Now it’s changed. People are realizing terrorists can kill anybody.”
Brussels’ main Jewish school dismissed its students at 12:30, asking parents to pick up their children one at a time to avoid having a crowd in front of the building. Brussels resident and community activist Shimon Bretholz was one of the terrified parents picking up their children. “There is no future for Jews in Brussels,” he adamantly told Aish.com. “There is also not a future for Jews in Europe.” He would like to move to Israel, he explained, but first needs to find a job.
Isabelle Steinkalik concurs; Brussels’ Jews are leaving, moving to Israel and other places. Rates of aliyah increased 25% in 2015 for Belgian Jews; overall about 200 Belgian Jews relocate to Israel each year.
According to Mrs. Steinkalik, it’s mostly the young who are better equipped to start over who are moving. “They believe in the future and can work everywhere. It's more difficult for the ‘older’ people; not everybody has so much money they can build another life in a foreign country.”
“Purim is cancelled,” one Jewish resident sadly explained. "We are going to have sad days of Purim. No celebrations. These certainly are dark days for us and there is great concern in the streets. We will make made modest celebrations in the house," Shimon Bretholz told an Israeli newspaper soon after the attacks.
Later in the day, speaking with Aish.com, his attitude had evolved. “Of course I will go to synagogue to hear the Megilla,” he declared. Brussels’ public Purim celebrations may have been cancelled, but the Jewish community is quietly resolved. Purim celebrations will continue in people’s homes and in synagogues, as residents question the long-term future of Brussels Jewish community.
Watch: Joel Rubinfeld, founder of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism, on the future of Europe, by J-TV