After 14 years of service to Berlin’s Jewish community, Rabbi Ernst Stein was happy to see the term of his contract come to an end.
As his term ended, Stein, 65, stayed up late with a group of close friends. At the stroke of midnight, when his contract officially came ended, the short, energetic rabbi took a deep breath, picked up a shofar and blew long and hard into the instrument.
The sound blasted onto the streets, and Stein’s wife, Ruth, worried that the neighbors might wake up. But no one complained, and the celebration went on.
In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Stein’s mixed emotions about serving Berlin’s Jewish community became evident as he shifted from severely critical remarks about the community to a more understanding stance.
“It’s not the fault of the community but of history,” Stein said in his spacious apartment in the city’s center. “This is a community that has been slapped together. It hasn’t grown. It’s an abnormality that’s born out of the past.”
The German-born American citizen took over the Conservative Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in 1980 following rabbinical training in England.
The rabbinate was Stein’s second career. On Sept. 7, 1940 — Stein recalled the exact date — his family fled from Germany to Moscow.
After the war, they lived in Jerusalem. Stein moved to the United States in 1958, where he worked as an engineer. In 1973, he entered rabbinical school in England.
Coming to Germany was not an easy decision. Stein said his wife told him that if he did not go, he would always regret it. But his two children vehemently opposed the decision and stayed in England.
The rabbi came with an initial five-year contract that was extended for 14 years. He stayed, he said, because of a “sense of duty.” But he added that inertia also played a part.
SIMPLY NOT INTERESTED IN JUDAISM
Stein’s chief complaint was that except for very few members, Berlin’s 10,000-strong Jewish community was simply not interested in Judaism.
He said that 40 percent of the Jews in Germany who have powerful communal positions are in it for the politics. Another 40 percent seek business contacts, he said, adding that the “others have a Jewish interest, but this is the smallest percentage.”
He claimed that congregations elsewhere, particularly in England, are different.
The rabbi was also critical of the influence real estate professionals as a group have in the Jewish community. “There are too many real estate people today in positions of authority in the Jewish community,” he said.
Stein also found it hard to believe that after almost 50 years since the end of World War II, there has not been one native-born rabbi serving in Germany.
Responding to some of the criticisms, Jerzy Kanal, chairman of Berlin’s Jewish community, stated that leaders of the German Jewish community are elected, not appointed, and that anyone can offer his or her candidacy, whether or not they are in real estate.
Kanal also noted that the community paid for rabbinical training for several Berlin-born rabbis, but none wanted a pulpit in Germany. A rabbinical post in England or America, said Kanal, was simply more attractive.
But Stein said the reason rabbis emigrate elsewhere is that those who know the community do not want to be a part of it, since its members are not interested in religious tradition and the rabbinate is “very weak.”
Stein said he wished he had problems with his board of directors, a common problem among rabbis in other communities.
“I wish I would have problems with them. They’re not interested enough to have problems with me,” said Stein.
He also pointed out that many classes of the Jewish Adult Education program here have more non-Jewish than Jewish attendees.
Kanal agreed that religion was not the top priority among some members of the community, but he blamed Stein for that, saying “it’s a rabbi’s job to motivate his congregation.”
A main reason for the disinterest is the way the community is set up, Stein explained. German Jews do not join a temple; they pay a tax to become part of the community.
Stein was hopeful that the situation would change as increasing numbers of dissatisfied Jews get together and form their own institutions.
Stein hopes to see alternative Jewish groups flourish as Berlin becomes more international, with Americans and others joining the community.