BERLIN, March 11 (JTA) — German Jewish leaders are hailing the installation of a female rabbi as another step forward for pluralism in the community. Last Friday, Rabbi Gesa Shira Ederberg was installed to serve the Jewish community in the Bavarian city of Weiden. Officiating at the event was Rabbi Joe Wernik of Jerusalem, president and director of the international Masorti, or Conservative, movement. The ceremony was particularly unusual because Ederberg not only is just the second female rabbi to serve in Germany, she is a Jew by choice, having converted in 1995 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The 300-member congregation she serves is under the umbrella of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, a fact that instills pride in the council’s president, Paul Spiegel. “Although most communities within the united community have decided to remain Orthodox, in recent years in Germany new communities have been founded that have a more liberal orientation to Judaism,” Spiegel said in a statement read at the installation. “This plurality in the expression of religion and culture is a welcome development. It testifies to the growing normality of Jewish life in Germany,” he said. Ederberg’s installation takes place against the backdrop of a power struggle among Jewish organizations in Germany, as some claim that the council wants to maintain an Orthodox monopoly on Jewish expression here. When the German government recently signed a historic contract providing an annual budget for the council and the 83 communities under its umbrella, the Union of Progressive Judaism in Germany complained about being left out. In fact, no Jewish movement is specifically named in the contract. And observers say the official Jewish umbrella organization is changing, slowly but surely. The appointment of a second female rabbi to a member congregation is evidence, they say. It has been eight years since Rabbi Bea Wyler, a Swiss native, was installed in the city of Oldenburg. Ederberg was born in 1968 in the university town of Tubingen in West Germany. “It was a Protestant, left-wing, normal, intellectual family,” she said in a recent interview. Her parents are both educators. Ederberg is the oldest of four children, and “the only one who is Jewish,” she laughed. She met her husband, Nils, when they were studying theology at the Free University of Berlin. Both were Protestants on a path to Judaism — Nils inspired in part by the fact that an ancestor was Jewish. Both converted, and they married in 1998 at a castle near Berlin. They now have twins, David and Judith, who are 30 months old. Ederberg, who earned a master’s degree in Protestant theology, came to Judaism slowly and steadily. She said she started out with a “purely intellectual” approach to Judaism, but the tie gradually became emotional. The “breaking point” came when Ederberg realized that mainstream Christian theology claims the Hebrew Bible and its terminology for itself. Through her experience of synagogue services, Ederberg gradually understood that the synagogue “was where these texts belong, and not in a church. It was a feeling of ‘wow,’ ” recalled Ederberg, who in 1993 went on to pursue a doctorate in Midrash at JTS in New York. She did not complete the degree. Her life was to take another direction. During her six months in New York she attended synagogue daily, as a visitor in an egalitarian minyan. This “was normal, undisputed,” said Ederberg, who later saw that this was not considered normal in many other places. In 1995 she returned to New York and converted through JTS. In German society, conversion can be problematic, she admitted, because “there is always the suspicion that one wants to change sides” from the perpetrator to the victim of the Shoah. Walter Rothschild, a liberal rabbi in Germany, agreed that “there are all kinds of motivations, and the job of a rabbi is to sort out carefully the healthy from the unhealthy.” Two months after her conversion, Ederberg was instrumental in organizing and leading an egalitarian minyan in Berlin that, in the fall of 1997, received its first financial support from the Berlin Jewish community. Today the congregation is an active part of the Berlin Jewish scene. After spending a couple of years in Berlin helping prepare children for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and providing Russian Jews with an introduction to Judaism, Ederberg “realized I was already teaching Judaism, and discovered this is what I wanted to do.” Ederberg left Berlin in 1998 to pursue rabbinical studies in Israel. In 2001, Gabi Brenner, president of the congregation in Weiden, invited Ederberg, then a student rabbi, to conduct their High Holiday services. “Our immigrant members were really impressed by” Ederberg’s “way of transmitting the religious teachings,” Brenner wrote in a report on congregational developments in 2001. Later, when the Weiden community decided to hire Ederberg, community members told her they had discussed the question of whether they wanted a female rabbi. But the question of her conversion “never was raised,” she said. Ederberg began serving in Weiden on a regular basis in August 2002. She travels to Weiden every two weeks to give classes on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and she officiates for the entire Shabbat once a month, bringing her family along. She has conducted three Bar Mitzvahs since the summer, and a funeral “on a snowy erev Shabbat during Chanukah,” said Ederberg, who was ordained in December. All but two families in the 300-member congregation in Weiden are new immigrants. There are 30 children in the religious school — which is a compulsory part of public education in Bavaria, “so the grades I give are on a public school report card,” Ederberg said. Meanwhile, she is getting letters and calls from people who are not Jewish and want to study, maybe even convert. But the class she offers in Berlin, as part of the Masorti Association for the Advancement of Jewish Education and Jewish Life, “is not study for conversion,” she said. “There’s a difference between Jewish learning and learning about Judaism.” “People who are learning about Judaism can be guests,” she added. Perhaps some of those “guests,” however, are on a path similar to her own.
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.