First Time in 25 Years: East Berlin Jewish Community to Have a Rabbi of Its Own

For the first time in almost a quarter century, the small Jewish community in East Berlin will have a rabbi of its own, the result of a four-year effort spearheaded by the American Jewish Committee.

Rabbi Isaac Neuman, a 65-year-old Auschwitz survivor from Champaign, Illinois, will leave for East Germany on Sept. 10 to assume his post and prepare for the High Holy Days. As his first rabbinical action, he will attend the International Ecumenical Conference in East Berlin on Sept. 13 as the official representative of the less than 600 remaining East German Jews.

The Reform rabbi, who is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, will become the only permanent American rabbi ministering in all of the East Bloc nations.

“I am going because there are Jews who are in need of spiritual service in this place out of which so much evil and destruction once emanated,” said Neuman. “It is my joy to try to rebuild and reconstruct and provide for the needs of this Jewish community.”

He added: “What I hope to bring is the information that will help them understand the oneness of the Jewish people, their shared history and experiences.”

Eugene DuBow, director of AJC’s Community Services Department, who has overseen this project since its conception, noted that “the process of having a permanent rabbi placed in East Berlin to help revive and rejuvenate the Jewish population there took a lot of time and energy on the part of concerned individuals, but we know that we have accomplished something incredibly worthwhile.”

CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS

DuBow offered the following chronology of events leading to Neuman’s appointment:

In the fall of 1983, an AJC leadership delegation to Germany became the first post-war American Jewish group to visit East Berlin. The president of the Jewish community there asked for AJC help in obtaining kosher wine, prayer shawls. German language prayer books, and a rabbi to conduct High Holy Day services. In early 1984, AJC shipped the materials and arranged for a rabbi from Chicago to go to the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to conduct services.

In the fall of 1985, an AJC delegation returned to East Berlin and was informed of the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Jewish community to the rabbi’s visit. East German Jewish community leaders discussed the possibility of finding a more permanent religious figure with the delegation, in an effort to maintain Jewish life and help young people discover their Jewish heritage. After a long search, AJC suggested Neuman for the position.

In the summer of 1986, Rep. William Lehman (D. Fla.) heard about AJC’s project and offered his help. He, along with AJC leaders, held several meetings with U.S. State Department officers and East German officials.

In January 1987, the State Secretary for Religious Affairs of the GDR arranged for Neuman, Lehman, DuBow, and State Department officials to go to East Berlin for Passover to meet with leaders of the Jewish community there and to “firm up” Neuman’s appointment.

Neuman’s position was officially confirmed by the East German government early last month. The GDR will pay his salary and provide him with an apartment and a car. Major funding for AJC’s work with the Jewish community in the GDR came from Saul Mirowitz of St. Louis, who has established the Barbara Mirowitz Fund for East German Jewry in honor of his wife.

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