BERLIN, Jan. 10 (JTA) — German Jewry is entering a new era of leadership at a critical juncture for the community.
Five months after the death of Ignatz Bubis, the Central Council of Jews in Germany has elected a Dusseldorf theatrical agent, Paul Spiegel, as its new president.
Sunday’s election of the 62-year-old by the nine-member council is seen as a bridge between the aging generation of Holocaust survivors and the younger generation of German Jews who, to a great extent, want to put the past behind them.
But his election also signifies a reluctance by Jewish leaders here to pass the leadership baton to the post-Holocaust generation.
Bubis, who had become a major public figure in Germany since serving as president from 1992 until his death in August, had reportedly wanted Spiegel, who was vice president, to succeed him as the head of the group that oversees religious, communal and financial matters for Germany’s 80,000- member Jewish community.
Spiegel, head of Dusseldorf’s Jewish community since 1984, was chosen by a 6-3 vote over Charlotte Knobloch, 67, head of Munich’s Jewish community since 1985.
Like Knobloch, Spiegel survived the Holocaust as a hidden child.
Attesting to the importance of the Jewish community in Germany, some 100 reporters attended a news conference Spiegel held Sunday upon his election.
At the news conference, Spiegel said his top priority would be the integration of the 50,000 Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union who have come here during the past 10 years.
As a result of their influx, Germany has Europe’s fastest-growing Jewish community.
They need financial and spiritual sustenance, Spiegel said, adding, “They know they are Jews, but they don’t know what Judaism is.”
Spiegel told reporters he hopes to heal the rifts between observant and liberal Jews in Germany.
He also said he will attempt to bring German Jews and non-Jews closer together — a task that Bubis, in an interview shortly before his death, said he had failed to accomplish.
At the news conference, Spiegel said the normalization of relations between German Jews and non-Jews “has yet to happen,” but that he is hopeful that it will.
At the same time, he added, “the situation has improved, and the fact that Jews are saying they want to live in Germany is not a bad sign for us.”
Spiegel said that unlike Bubis, he was “relatively optimistic” about the future of the Jewish community in Germany, despite an increase in xenophobia in recent years.
He expressed concern about the effect of “extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic poison” freely available on the Internet.
On the other hand, he applauded youth exchange programs between Germany and Israel and said the interest of young Germans in learning about Judaism and the Holocaust has “never been as great as it is today.”
Spiegel told reporters he would try to live up to Bubis’ ideals, but that he would find his “own style” — including delegating tasks to other council members.
At the same news conference, Knobloch accepted her defeat but said she believed her sex had put her at a disadvantage.
“As a woman, I didn’t stand the same chance as a man,” she said.
Spiegel’s family comes from the village of Warendorf in the state of Westphalia.
During World War II, he was hidden, along with his mother, Ruth, by Belgian farmers. His father, Hugo, and his older sister, Rosa, were discovered and deported by the Nazis. Rosa never returned. Spiegel’s father survived Buchenwald and Auschwitz and was liberated from Dachau.
In a recent interview, Spiegel recalled how during the war years “people had told me that Germans were giants who killed little children.”
After the war, the family was reunited in Warendorf and decided to stay in Germany. Spiegel’s father renovated the town’s tiny Jewish chapel and led the first services there.
He has been described politically as a centrist. He is also said to have close contacts with German President Johannes Rau.
As a result of Sunday’s vote, Knobloch and council member Michel Friedman of Frankfurt will serve as vice presidents of the council.
Friedman, whose parents survived the Holocaust, declined to run for the office, saying Bubis’ successor should be a survivor.
But many of the postwar generation disagreed with that stance.
“I would prefer that the second generation would have been elected, to overcome the shadow of the Holocaust,” said Ronnie Golz, 53, of Berlin.
“We are living here for positive reasons and it is time for a change,” said Golz. “This is only half a change.”
Richard Chaim Schneider, a 43-year-old Jewish journalist from Munich, disagreed.
Spiegel is “is a man of ubergang, of passage” into the future, “and he is conscious about it, and that is fine,” Schneider said. “He will try to integrate younger Jews into his work.”