Behind the Headlines: Berlin Synagogue Encounters Problems in Finding New Rabbi

Help wanted: Two rabbis needed in major metropolitan city, one for a Conservative synagogue, the other to coordinate youth programs. Salary well above average pay at American synagogues. Women need not apply. Professional requirements: Must speak German and be willing to live in Germany.

The last requirement may well provide the Jewish community of Berlin with difficulties as it seeks a replacement for Rabbi Ernst Stein, who ran the Conservative Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue for the past 14 years before retiring last month.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Jerzy Kanal, chairman of Berlin’s Jewish community, expressed confidence that the community’s board of directors would find two candidates to fill the openings by the end of the year.

But he admitted that it will be an uphill battle to find rabbis who speak German and want to move to the German capital.

“Germany doesn’t have the best image,” Kanal said. “We receive lots of delegations from overseas, and there’s hardly a delegation that doesn’t ask us, ‘How can you live here?’ “

Kanal added that competition from other Western countries makes the Berlin community’s search process more difficult.

“If a rabbi has a position in England or America, he isn’t keen to come to Germany,” he said.

Kanal added that it is equally difficult to find native-born rabbis, noting that in wealthy Germany, young Jews do not see a need to go into the rabbinate. He claimed that if the economic situation here were worse, there would be more interest in religion.

But the retired Stein is more critical. He said the German Jewish communities, and Berlin in particular, are known among German-speaking rabbis as tough assignments.

SAYS MEMBERSHIP MEANS BUSINESS CONTACTS

The city’s congregants, Stein said, are more interested in political or business contacts they can obtain from membership in the community than they are in religion.

Congregational politics in Germany, the object of many of Stein’s criticisms, is different from what might be found in other countries.

Unlike the situation in the United States, where Jews join a temple, Jews here must register with the German Jewish community and then pay a kind of “church tax” that is levied by the government.

The tax amounts to about 8 percent of an individual’s annual tax payment.

In another major difference from other countries, a rabbi in Berlin does not deal directly with his or her synagogue’s board of directors, because synagogues here do not have their own directors.

The real “machers” are the board members who serve the entire community.

The board has so far interviewed several candidates and has even turned some down, Kanal said. “Not every rabbi fits in,” he said.

Following up on an idea from the late Heinz Galinski, who headed both the Berlin Jewish community and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Jewish leaders here are trying to hire a “youth rabbi.”

The new rabbi will not be responsible for a particular congregation, but for keeping young people interested in Judaism after they have their bar or bat mitzvah.

Berlin’s Jewish community has placed a special emphasis on its young people. A Jewish high school — the first in post-war Germany –opened last year, and the community also supports nursery and elementary schools and a youth center.

One thing about the two new rabbis the community is seeking is already definite: They will be men.

Congregants at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue have made it clear to the board of directors that they do not want a woman rabbi.

Kanal has not ruled out that a woman might one day be a rabbi in Berlin. But he said that a woman would not be hired now and not in the near future.

If a replacement is not chosen soon, guest rabbis, probably from England, Israel or the United States, will be imported to handle the High Holiday services of this city’s 10,000-member Jewish community and to bolster the efforts of its only remaining rabbi, who is Orthodox.

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