Debate Among East Berlin’s Jews Centers on How to Approach the Young

A controversy has surfaced within East Berlin’s tiny Jewish community over how to approach the several dozen young Jews who lately have showed interest in Judaism and in seeking their Jewish roots.

Peter Kirchner, chairman of the community, believes they must be confronted with the choice of “joining in or staying out” of the official community. But the new rabbi of East Berlin, Isaac Neumann, its first rabbi in 22 years, insists that no pressure be brought to bear on young people attracted to Judaism.

The quarrel involves a Jewish community that is minuscule. There were 400 officially registered Jews in all of East Germany in 1985, about half of whom lived in East Berlin. In 1984, the community numbered 800, half in East Berlin.

Neumann, writing in the West Berlin leftist daily Tageszeitung, said his primary concern was that the young men and women grasp Judaism and practice whatever they understand. “Whether one is a member of the community or not, this is certainly not decisive,” he said. He added that it was up to the rabbi to decide.

Neumann, 65, was born in Lodz, Poland and after years in Nazi concentration and labor camps, immigrated to the United States in 1950. He was ordained there in 1958 and served as a rabbi in Champaign, III.

He assumed his rabbinical post in East Berlin last September after prolonged negotiations between American Jewish organizations and the East German authorities. He is presently vacationing in the United States.

Some sources in East Berlin said his visit abroad during Chanukah was due to friction with the community chairman and some of his closest colleagues. He hinted in his Tageszeitung article that their differences are broader than the question of young Jews seeking their heritage.

Neumann wrote: “I insist on free access to all Jews. If there is no such free access, I am not interested in this community.”

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