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Russian immigrants redefine, reinvigorate Jews in Germany

FRANKFURT, Nov. 16 (JTA) – Seven years ago, dozens of German Jewish communities were on the verge of dissolution. They had no rabbis, cantors or religious instructors, and had difficulty assembling a minyan. Today many of those same communities have tripled membership, hired rabbis and Jewish instructors, and are renting or building more spacious sanctuaries. These facts are indicative of a phenomenon rich in irony: Just 50-odd years after the end of the Holocaust, German Jews are part of one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities not only in Europe, but in the world as well. And that”s not the only irony. The common denominator in this seemingly miraculous transformation is the booming influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, who are moving to the country that twice in this century invaded the land where they were born. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the German government has quietly allowed about 8,000 Jews and family members to move each year to Germany. Nearly half of the immigrants have joined Jewish communities. Germany”s Jewish community numbers approximately 60,000. And the Russian immigrants are adding more than numbers. Their presence is challenging the community”s already-stretched social welfare system and, perhaps, ending questions about whether Jews have a future in Germany. The influx has revitalized communities such as the one in Mainz, southeast of Frankfurt. During the past five years, the community has swelled from 120 to 360. The tiny sanctuary fills up with 50 to 60 congregants every Sabbath. About 170 people attended the two community seders last Passover, and more would have attended had there been more space. The community bulletin is now bilingual – in German and Russian. Last year, the community was able to hire a rabbi for the first time. They also have a new administrative director, 27-year-old Elizabeth Benizri. “Without the Russian Jews, I imagine the community would have died out eventually,”” she said during a break in her busy schedule. Benizri, who grew up in a religious family, has been a lifelong member of the Mainz community. Jewish summer camps and youth organizations stimulated her interest in Jewish social work and education. The influx of Russian Jews has bolstered her career. “There used to be about five kids when I went to Chanukah parties as a child. Now, about 50 come. I see the changes and know what I”m fighting for,”” she says. Despite the undeniable boost from the Russian immigration, community facilities are stretched beyond their limits. So far, city officials have made only vague promises about helping finance badly needed space for a new sanctuary and community center. Benizri has just one part-time assistant and says she badly needs more personnel – but does not have the money for salaries. There is only one Russian-speaking social worker for the 3,000 Russian Jews living in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where Mainz is located. Occasional help comes from local groups, involved in Christian-Jewish relations, who co-sponsor excursions and social activities with the Jewish community. Still, about 1,000 Jews live in isolated refugee shelters without any access to the organized Jewish community. Germany”s relatively small Jewish community also lacks the money and personnel to help all of the immigrants find jobs. Although the majority have a university education, most lack the training needed to get a job in Germany. As a result, 90% are unemployed and live on welfare. Germany”s national Jewish agency has sponsored a series of seminars to expose musicians, artists and writers to their German counterparts, but such programs reach only a fraction of the immigrants. Benizri says the main problem in stimulating contact between the German Jews and the new arrivals is the language barrier. A few speak Yiddish, German or English, but most speak only Russian. The German government helps the immigrants learn basic German, but the courses are too short for most to become conversant in the language. Many of the Russian Jews who immigrate to Germany are well aware of the irony of seeking Jewish life in the country that sought to extinguish it. Vladimir Snovski, a computer specialist, moved to Germany with his family in 1993. He was more comfortable with the idea of staying in Europe, with its familiar culture, than moving to Israel. “Many people don”t understand how a Jew can move to Germany,”” he says. “But I can”t say that for perpetuity, only fascists live there. I grew up with German literature. There are so many good poets that I could not believe they are all fascists.”” The Israeli government has criticized Bonn for allowing Russian Jewish immigration. Israeli officials have come to Germany to urge immigrants to move to Israel. They have had little success. Snovski, now a social worker for Russian Jewish immigrants, is one of the few who has found a job. He has also started learning about Judaism. “We all grew up as atheists,”” he says. “Religion had no meaning. I tell the immigrants that it”s not enough to think you are Jewish because it is stamped in your passport. There is much more to Judaism – it”s a religion.”” In addition to exhausting resources, the presence of the Russian Jews has forced the existing German Jewish communities to redefine their identities, says Benizri. “How should we integrate the Russian Jews, into what sort of community life,”” she asks. “And who will continue religious life when the generation of Holocaust survivors is gone?”” No one knows if the latest wave of immigrants will accept the Orthodoxy that is now standard in Germany or if their presence will reinforce or change the structure of Jewish life in the country. It is also unclear if the Russian Jews will accelerate or slow a current push among younger German Jews toward liberal Judaism. One effect of the rapid expansion of Germany”s Jewish community is that it is finally able to attract more rabbis, cantors and teachers. Since World War II, few religious leaders have been prepared to move to the country that was responsible for the Holocaust. But during the past five years, the number of rabbis has doubled to more than 20. Still, there are not enough Jewish educators in Germany to impart Jewish culture and religious instruction to most of the immigrants. Benizri cautions that it is much too soon to predict the long-term impact of the Russian Jewish influx. “We need to wait a generation until those who are now children grow up. Then we will see how many identify with the community.”” Meanwhile, the steady immigration continues. After a brief slowdown, applications from Jews in the former Soviet Union to move to Germany are again increasing. Jewish officials expect the immigration to continue. Even if only a portion join the Jewish community, Jewish officials expect the German community to rise to more than 100,000 within the next few years. This falls far short of the prewar German Jewish community of about 500,000, but it would make the community one of Europe”s largest. The growing numbers of Jews could eventually quell the still simmering debate among many Jews about whether or not to rebuild Jewry in post-Holocaust Germany. The question would shift from whether the German Jewish community will be reconstructed to the form that community will take. Instead of fighting a battle for legitimacy, Jews living in Germany could address questions of religious plurality, instruction and youth education. Snovski believes that many German Jewish communities are just beginning to acknowledge the permanence of the changes engendered by the influx of Russian emigres. In his work, he has encountered indifference among some of the Jewish officials toward the immigrants. But he thinks that a turning point has been reached. “They are finally starting to understand that our fate is their future. If the parents aren”t integrated, the kids are lost.””

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