Germany’s Liberal Jewish Community Celebrates Anniversary, Acceptance
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Germany’s Liberal Jewish Community Celebrates Anniversary, Acceptance

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The anniversary of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, in the city where it held its first congress 75 years ago, is being seen as evidence that liberal Judaism has earned a place at the table in Germany’s traditional Jewish community.

The four-day Berlin conference, which began on July 10 with an event in the city’s Jewish community center, symbolized the renewal of Jewish life in postwar and post-Communist Germany.

"We cannot take our presence here for granted," said Jan Muehlstein, head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Germany.

"The world needs liberal Judaism and liberal interpretations as a counterforce to fundamentalism," said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union.

"But pluralism is not always simple," Regev added. "Sometimes one has to struggle to establish legitimacy," even "here, too, in Germany."

Despite the resurgence of the German Jewish community in recent years, the tragedy of the Holocaust is never far removed.

"I have mixed feelings about what we lost" in the Holocaust "and what is now being regained," WUPJ President Ruth Cohen told JTA. "I have feelings of hope and joy."

Among the speakers was German Interior Minister Otto Schily, an architect of the new contract between the government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the official umbrella group for German Jewry.

The contract, signed in January, brought relations between the liberal Jewish group and the Central Council to a low point.

Regev tried to pressure Paul Spiegel, head of the council, to include the WUPJ in the contract. Spiegel refused, saying the council already represented all branches of Judaism that follow matrilineal descent, the traditional definition of who is a Jew.

Most members of the WUPJ subscribe to that tenet, with the exception of the American Reform movement and some branches of British liberal Judaism.

At the Berlin event, many suggested that relations between the Central Council and its liberal challengers have started to thaw. Even Spiegel, on vacation in Israel, sent a message through the council’s executive director, Stephan Kramer, that Progressive Judaism could be seen as a boon to Jewish life in Germany.

Muehlstein told JTA that his group in Munich is meeting with the city’s official Jewish community, something he could not have imagined a year ago. Several liberal congregations across Germany are under consideration for inclusion under the general umbrella.

Immediately after the war, Germany’s Jewish community was predominantly Orthodox. In the last 15 years, however, small liberal congregations have cropped up here, as elsewhere in Europe.

For most, liberalism means inclusion of women in Jewish ritual; a looser approach to dietary and other laws; non-literal biblical interpretation; and less stringent requirements for conversion to Judaism than those prescribed by Orthodoxy.

Critics say such accommodations to modernity weaken the spirit of Judaism. Proponents argue that Judaism’s survival depends on flexibility.

The recent congress stressed the legacy of and current challenges facing liberal Judaism, with workshops on the movement’s German roots, its use of music in the synagogue, the role of the rabbi, the growth of liberal Judaism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, feminist approaches to liturgy and new approaches to mixed marriages and homosexual partnerships.

Classes were offered on Torah study, rabbinic counseling and bereavement issues.

"I hope the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Union for Progressive Judaism will come together and not work against each other," Ernst Cramer, head of the Axel Springer Foundation, told JTA.

Cramer, 90, recalled his feelings as a young man during the first conference.

"I remember it was in the papers," he said. "At that time, we thought it was the future of Judaism."

"I hope liberal Judaism will spread," Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich, honorary president of B’nai B’rith Europe, told JTA. Ehrlich, who is in his 80s, attended the first postwar liberal conference, held in London in 1946. He was invited to attend by Leo Baeck, a German liberal rabbi who had survived Theresienstadt.

"The power of the organization came from the Americans, who had not suffered the Holocaust," he said. "The chairman, Maurice Eisenrad, started his speech with a joke. I found it was not the right place."

But 57 years later it’s fine to celebrate, he said.

"There must be something done so Jewish life is spreading. It’s not a question of a movement, a sectarian thing, but rather of Jewish identity," Ehrlich said.

There are about 100,000 Jews in Germany and 83 congregations serving them, and an estimated 2,000 members of the Progressive faction.

Among the presenters at the conference were rabbis from Dortmund, Amsterdam, London, Jerusalem, Potsdam and Vienna.

The opening program was one of the best attended in recent memory. Guests, including Jewish leaders, politicians and heads of Germany’s Muslim, Christian and Sinti-Roma communities, packed the center’s ballroom.

Taking it all in was Stanley Bergman, 53, an American businessman whose parents left Germany for South Africa in 1936.

"My parents were liberal Jews, and I wanted to be here 75 years after the birth of the World Union," said Bergman, who attended with his wife. The Bergmans belong to Temple Beth El in Huntington, N.Y.

"I feel this is a vindication of what the Nazis tried to kill — the multi- brand Judaism which was so important in prewar Germany," Bergman said.

Past and future were intertwined at the opening ceremony, where Alina Treiger of Ukraine, a 24-year-old rabbinical student at Potsdam’s new liberal Abraham Geiger College Seminary, lit one of six candles memorializing Holocaust victims.

"My heart was full of feeling," Treiger told JTA. "And I was feeling my responsibility. Many Russian Jews were afraid to come to Germany," she said, but "here they have a chance to learn about Judaism. And I hope through my studies I will be able to help them."

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