Looking to Prove Power of Sisterhood, German Jewish Women Form Network by Toby Axelrod

They are architects, art historians, psychologists and academics. They are Jewish women. And they are in Germany.

Until recently, that was all they had in common. But now these women have another tie that binds them: a German Jewish women’s network.

“A Network of Jewish Women in Economics, Research, Media and Institutions” was launched this week with a daylong conference of workshops and panel discussions at the Jewish Community Center in Berlin.

The network is seen as a sign of the growing confidence of Germany’s Jewish community.

Project initiators said they aim above all to build professional connections, foster mentors and role models and overcome career obstacles in a society where more than 90 percent of upper level professionals are men.

During a brainstorming session, several women offered ideas about what the network might accomplish.

“I want to help create a platform not only for job seekers but to help generate new career ideas,” one woman said.

Another said she was “interested in a network within the university, both for researchers and to help new students — to have someone to help show the way.”

“We should deal with questions that arise for women when their children leave home and they want to start working,” one participant said.

Charlotte Knobloch, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and president of the Jewish community of Munich, said the network should have Jewish content.

It must be informed by “Jewish traditions, a Jewish way of life, a life built on Jewish values,” she said.

“We will learn to treasure each other, not because we reflect each other,” she said, “but exactly because we are different from one another.”

Cynthia Kain, deputy vice president of the Berlin Jewish community, noted that women had to learn to trust each other.

The board of the Jewish community has four women out of a total of 21, she said.

“It’s not because there was a lack of women candidates. It’s just that voters — including women — have more trust in the male candidate,” she said.

In fact, the past decade has seen a marked change in the status of Jewish women in Germany, often inspired by American models. While the United States saw its first female rabbis some 30 years ago, Germany’s first female rabbi — Bea Wyler, a Swiss citizen — was appointed to serve the Conservative Jewish synagogue of Oldenburg in 1995.

More recently, the Berlin Jewish community officially hired two female cantors. And in 1999 and 2001, the Berlin community was a major supporter of Bet Debora, an educational conference aimed at female rabbis, cantors, educators and other Jewish professionals.

The new professional network goes beyond the world of Jewish religious and communal institutions, reaching out to women in all fields, as well as to homemakers and retirees.

A similar group in Vienna, formed in 1999, decided to allow non-Jews to attend meetings, since the city’s Jewish community has only 5,000 members.

Discussions are still under way about whether non-Jews will be accepted at meetings of the network formed in Berlin, home to 12,500 of Germany’s 100,000 Jews.

One woman said she hoped the network would publicize services that members have to offer.

“That is why we created a directory,” Pixner said. “We even have an auto mechanic in our group.”

The Berlin-based network is the brainchild of Noa Gabriel Lerner, 37, an entrepreneur who founded the Milch und Honig German-Jewish Web site — www.milch-und-honig.com — and recently started a Berlin Jewish tourism service. The Web site’s name means milk and honey.

Lerner said the event gave clear evidence of how the self-perception of German Jewish women had changed.

Lerner said she is “astonished” that so many participants agreed to have their contact information printed in a directory. “No one asked about security,” she said.

“It told me that we are a little more confident to present ourselves in public as Jewish women,” said Lerner, who plans to hold another conference next year in Berlin, Munich or Vienna.

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