FRANKFURT, Oct. 22 (JTA) – A ruling by a German federal court has the potential to change the way the Berlin Jewish community operates. It could also have considerable significance for the growing number of liberal groups that are forming throughout the country. The court ruled that the Orthodox congregation in Berlin, Adas Israel, founded in the 19th century, never ceased to exist even though it was dissolved by the Nazis in 1938. The ruling gives the congregation the legal status to claim property it owned before World War II and opens the way for Adas Israel, which was revived as a religious community in 1985, to claim access to public funds. It also means that for the first time since the war, there are two officially recognized Jewish communities in the same German city. The ruling came after a five-year legal fight and an even longer battle of wills among Adas Israel, the established Jewish Berlin community and the city of Berlin. The debate was marked by acrimonious personal encounters and hefty mudslinging. Like other religions, Germany’s approximately 60,000 registered Jews pay a religion tax to the government, which in turn dispenses funds to local communities. The court’s ruling could lead to a competition for public funds between Adas Israel and the already-established Jewish community in Berlin. The established Jewish community in Berlin also saw Adas Israel’s claim as an infringement upon the single community principle, which it believes is the most effective way to consolidate resources and funding. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there were fewer than 30,000 Jews in Germany. An influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union since then has more than doubled Germany’s Jewish community. The Berlin community is the country’s largest, with some 11,000 members. Adas Israel has reached out to the more than 5,000 Russian Jewish immigrants in Berlin, winning new congregants and establishing a network of social services. The long-standing conflict within the Jewish community over Adas Israel was recently defused at a meeting between the newly elected head of the established Berlin community, Andreas Nachama, and Adas Israel leader Mario Offenberg. The meeting ended with the two issuing a statement that they had agreed to establish a new relationship on the basis of respect, equality, and cooperation. In practice, most German Jewish communities are run along moderate Orthodox lines, offering no form of worship for Jews seeking liberal Judaism. But the court ruling could have a dramatic impact on the growing numbers of Reform and Conservative groups that are forming. Germany’s official Jewish communities have done little to support the new liberal religious efforts, warning that the establishment of new congregations could divide and weaken existing communal structures. Micha Brumlik, chairman of the newly formed Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, said the Adas Israel ruling means that the German courts now recognize the principle of different communities operating in the same city. Liberal congregations are currently striving to become part of the existing Jewish communities, he said, but if they are systematically denied access to funding, the court decision would make it easier to establish new congregations. Brumlik said the situation is developing differently in various cities. In Frankfurt and Berlin, he said, there are signs that the existing Jewish community is taking steps to accommodate liberal groups. But in Munich, where the largest of the newly formed liberal congregations is located, there is a possibility the congregation will establish itself as a separate Jewish community.
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