Around the Jewish World: Reform Judaism Gains Followers in Country Where It Has Its Roots

More than half a century after nearly vanishing from the country where it began, Reform Judaism is making a comeback in Germany.

"It is important to have Reform Jewish groups here so that women are no longer just observers, but can participate equally in services," says Marian Stein- Steinfeld, a member of Kehillah Chadashah, a Reform community founded three years ago in Frankfurt, the city where progressive Jewish thinkers such as Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber once taught.

"I have gained a new relationship to Judaism," says Stein-Steinfeld, whose two children, Reuven, 14, and Mariam, 12, celebrated their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs with the Kehillah community instead of at the main Frankfurt synagogue.

"It is hard to teach children today how to integrate Judaism into their life," says Stein-Steinfeld. "The children weren’t interested in the more Orthodox tradition at the main synagogue.

"Since we started going to Kehillah, we have started practicing Judaism again in our everyday family life."

In the early to mid-19th century, German-speaking Jews played a key role in launching Reform Judaism in Europe and the United States.

By the 1930s, the majority of German Jews attended Liberal services.

Rabbi Walter Jacob, chief rabbi of the Reform Beth Shalom temple in Munich, says the German Liberal movement was ideologically akin to the American Reform movement, but in liturgical practice closer to Conservative Jewry.

After the war, Jewish life in Germany was re-established primarily by Eastern European Holocaust survivors, who instituted the Orthodox services common in Eastern Europe.

As a result, most of the main synagogues now in Germany are Orthodox, with services held entirely in Hebrew and with separate seating for men and women.

But Reform communities are beginning to sprout: There are now more than 1,000 German Jews who belong to some 20 Reform communities throughout the country, communal leaders estimate.

Germany’s overall Jewish population is now more than 60,000, half of whom are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Although the liturgy and music vary, all Reform groups have mixed seating for men and women, stress the equality of women and conduct services with prayers in German as well as Hebrew.

Most of the Reform groups do not have rabbis, cantors or religious directors. Services are led by members.

In Munich, however, Jacob’s appointment marked the first for a German-speaking Reform rabbi since the war.

In fact, nine communities convened in Munich in June to establish the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, an umbrella group aimed at promoting cooperation among Liberal German-speaking communities.

And in another indication of the growth of the Reform movement here, this fall, the first Reform Hebrew-German prayerbook will be published here since the 1920s.

Susanne Keval of Frankfurt considers it important to have a choice in religious life.

"Judaism in Germany will be much richer and more creative if there is more plurality," she says.

"It is important that we become more active in religion through greater participation."

The greater degree of participation in Reform services appeals to Jewish folk singer Daniel Kempin, a member of Kehillah.

"I feel connected to a community again," he says. "The warm relationships that have evolved in this group bring me closer to my Jewish identity."

Despite the growth of interest in Reform services, the groups are hampered by a lack of acceptance on the part of Germany’s established Orthodox communities.

Orthodox Jewish leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns that the new Reform groups could cause splits in the community, substantially weakening organized Jewish life in Germany.

Members of the small Reform movement disagree.

"We aren’t taking anyone away from the existing Orthodox communities," says Stein-Steinfeld.

"We are collecting some of the people who don’t go at all by offering an alternative."

Ludmilla Edelmann, who was born in Russia, grew up attending services in the small Jewish community in Osnabruck, located in northern Germany.

"Twenty years ago, no one talked about Reform Judaism because we were worried about just getting together a minyan," she says. "There was just one community because we felt it was important to stick together.

"Now, I can decide to which congregation I want to go — I feel better represented when I can make this choice myself."

Sufficient funding has become a real problem for Reform groups, according to the newly elected chairman of the Union of Progressive Jews, Micha Brumlik, who is a professor of education at the University of Heidelberg.

Because of their concerns about breaking up the community, few of the more traditionally minded Jewish communities have been willing to designate part of the government funds they receive to Reform groups.

Despite their limited access to existing financial and educational resources, Reform leaders believe they can succeed.

The union plans to publish prayer books and support the training of rabbis, cantors and teachers, it said in a recent statement.

At a recent conference on German Reform Jewry in Arnoldshain, near Frankfurt, there was a dispute about a decision to link the newly founded union with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which is an umbrella of Reform, Liberal and Progressive congregations.

A representative of the Gottingen community said her group considered itself Conservative and did not want to be part of a union that was closely tied to the Reform movement.

A previous association of German-speaking Reform and Conservative communities that was founded last year fell apart in part because of the willingness of some groups to accept members who claim patrilineal lineage. While traditional Judaism determine one’s Jewishness through the mother or conversion, Reform Jews accept as Jewish anyone born of a Jewish father as long as the child is raised Jewish.

The new union says the nine founding communities have agreed that membership will be open only to those who claim matrilineal lineage or those who have formally converted.

The decision is expected to improve the credibility of the union with Germany’s Orthodox communities, which reject patrilineal descent.

At the conference in Arnoldshain, most participant groups reported a growth in membership.

Representatives from the Hanover group said up to 100 people regularly attend their Friday evening services, which is often more of a turnout than at the city’s Orthodox community.

Petra Theilhaber, a member of Frankfurt’s Kehillah Chadashah, is encouraged by the interest from abroad in Germany’s burgeoning Reform movement.

"Jewish organizations elsewhere are noticing that something is happening here of which it is worth taking note," says Theilhaber.

She hopes more international organizations will reach out and support the newly forming German groups.

"The recognition from abroad strengthens the interest here," she says.

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