Around the Jewish World: Five Years After German Unity, Jews in Berlin Remain Divided

Five years after German unification, the East-West difficulties that have affected nearly every aspect of German unification have also spilled over into the Jewish community.

“The East-West conflict was brought into our community,” says Eva Nickel, a social worker who is a longtime member of east Berlin’s Jewish community. “It didn’t come from within.”

Since the two Germanies officially united Oct. 3, 1990, serious tensions have appeared in the Jewish community.

In Berlin, the frontline for unification, there is often little interaction between the two halves of the city’s Jewish communities.

Few west Berlin Jews regularly attend services in east Berlin’s only functioning house of worship, the Rykestrasse Synagogue – and few easterners go west.

In addition, there are no east Berliners on the five-member board of directors of the city’s approximately 11,000-strong Jewish community.

Peter Ambros, a spokesman for the community, says the board is representative of all Berlin Jews.

There are only about 180 Jews in east Berlin, he said.

But to the annoyance of some Jews in the east, the west Berlin community often appears to take action as it sees fit without consulting them.

They cite what is for them a perfect case in point. At recent Rosh Hashanah services at the Rykestrasse Synagogue, an organ was brought from west Berlin to the east Berlin synagogue so that a west Berlin cantor could sing with a choir there.

This occurred without any consultation with the Rykestrasse members, they say.

Many were outraged at the action and did not appreciate having an organ and a choir suddenly arrive in their place of worship.

Conversations with Berlin Jews indicate that many westerners are unaware of what Jewish life is like in the east.

Asked about the current tendency in the Rykestrasse Synagogue toward a more liberal German Reform-style service, Jerzy Kanal, chairman of Berlin’s Jewish community, said, “There are 20 to 30 people at best who go to the Rykestrasse. And most of them are immigrants. They don’t know anything about religion.”

The previously minuscule Jewish communities in the former East Germany have grown, largely due to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Congregants at the east Berlin synagogue say that theirs is the only one in town that adheres to the liberal prewar principles of German Judaism.

Thanks largely to a group of activist women and to an open-minded cantor, women wear kipot during services at the Rykestrasse and occasionally organize special events.

For some east Berlin Jews, it is not surprising that those in the west are unaware of Jewish activities on the other side of town.

“The east is treated by the west community like a stepchild,” said Lara Daemmig, an east Berlin librarian who regularly attends services in the Rykestrasse.

Jews in west Berlin “don’t observe so closely what is happening here. It isn’t so important to them,” she said.

“We have had people from the west come and tell us about anti-Semitism in east Germany,” says Heinz-Joachim Aris, a member of the board of directors of the Jewish community in the eastern German city of Dresden.

In an interview in the community’s renovated offices, Aris, whose father was the longtime president of the Association of Jewish Communities of the former East Germany, said he is not surprised by such utterances.

The problem, he said, is not a Jewish one, but an East-West one.

Unlike the issues dividing the Berlin communities, there is one problem that confronts Jewish communities throughout Germany.

Peter Fischer, a member of the board of directors of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said it is still impossible to find a rabbi from abroad who is willing to work in Germany – east or west.

Thus, in at least one respect, there has not been any change since unification: No Jewish community in the east has a full-time rabbi.

“I’m rather disappointed about this,” Fischer says. “The numerous declarations from abroad about a solidarity partnership cannot stop with money. But I think it is a problem for Jews to come to Germany.”

Fischer, attempting to explain the situation, believes that it stems from a disbelief among Jews abroad that any Jew would want to live in Germany after what took place during the Holocaust.

The rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the wake of the Berlin Wall’s fall has not made Germany any more attractive in foreign eyes.

But Jews who lived in the Communist era say they actually prefer the current surfacing of such sentiments rather than the hidden anti-Semitism that was present earlier.

“I don’t know any country where it’s easy to be a Jew,” says Salomeah Genin, an east Berlin Jew who immigrated with her family to Australia and returned to Germany in the 1950s.

A devoted Communist, she fought to enter the former East Germany – and got her wish in the early 1960s.

Commenting on statements issued by the East German government – that there was no anti-Semitism and that the country was a home for Jews – she says that she could never speak out in public against those lies.

But nowadays, “I’m less afraid,” she says, she adding that anti-Semitism is “at least spoken out loud. I know what I’m confronted with, and I can scream.”

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