BERLIN, July 30 (JTA) — It´s a bitter pill for some to swallow: In 2002, more Jews from the former Soviet republics immigrated to Germany than to Israel. But the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration and absorption in the Jewish state, appears to be partially swallowing that pill. The immigration numbers — about 19,000 to Germany versus 18,000 to Israel — have sent a message to the Jewish Agency, which recently sent a high-level delegation to visit Jewish communities across Germany. The message is that the first priority, even ahead of aliyah, should be supporting Jewish life in Germany, delegation members told JTA. While the ultimate goal remains convincing German Jews to move to Israel, the Jewish Agency Task Force on Germany reflects a new approach, Jewish Agency officials say. The argument is that strengthening Jewish identity in Germany will lead to increased Zionism, Shai Hermesh, treasurer of the Jewish Agency and head of the task force, told JTA in a telephone interview. "We have two major tasks: to keep Jewish life, and, secondly, to create Jewish Zionist activity," Hermesh added. "At the end of the day, Israel is the answer for Zionists." Some Jewish Agency officials are upset that Germany´s attractive absorption package — far beyond what Israel can afford — is luring Jews, particularly from the former Soviet Union. But the Jewish Agency is not about to try to convince Germany to stop accepting Jewish immigrants. Instead, from July 14 to 18, the task force traveled through Germany, visiting seven Jewish communities of varying sizes. The new task force aims to work with existing communal structures to "encourage Jewish roots and Jewish Zionist education" among Jews in Germany, in order to "create the opportunity that at least the younger generation will believe that their place is in Israel, not in Germany." With that in mind, the agency is planning to create new positions here to augment its current staff of one and to increase the emphasis on Jewish education and religious life. "We must find the best positive way to have contact with Jews in Germany," Hermesh said. Though he didn´t want to comment on the task force, he said that "it is always good to strengthen Jewish life and identity; it is very positive." "As a true Zionist, I think the place for Jews is Israel, but I think we also have to live with the reality that there are Jews in Germany and Jews in America and England, not just Israel," said Israel´s former ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, who now is vice president of Tel Aviv University. He said the recent drop in immigration to Israel has more to do with the intifada than anything else. Meanwhile, the Jewish community in Germany has grown threefold since 1990. The Jewish Agency is by no means the first Jewish organization to recognize the challenge and potential in Germany´s growing Jewish community. In recent years, several rabbinical training programs have sprung up here, started by the Central Council for Jews in Germany, the World Union for Progressive Judaism and two American imports: the Ronald S. Lauder yeshiva and Chabad-Lubavitch. All are driven in part by the fact that there are fewer than 30 rabbis available to serve 83 Jewish communities in the country. Germany also has become a favorite stop for American Jewish organizations and rabbinic groups who want to see Jewish life here for themselves. This growing popularity is encouraged — and partly supported — by the German government. But this apparently is the first time that an Israeli organization is stepping into the mix. It marks a major change in official Israeli attitudes toward immigration to Germany, formerly seen as a taboo topic. But the trends and figures hardly can be ignored anymore. The task force consists of Jewish Agency professionals and board members: Benny Navon, Israel´s former ambassador to Germany; Benni Bloch of the Central Welfare Council of Jews in Germany, and Rabbi Josh Spinner, director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Berlin. The team will present its recommendations the agency chairman, Sallai Meridor. "The Jewish Agency has expressed interest in Germany before, but never before has the board of governors created such a task force to present findings," Spinner said. The agency is planning to send a new liaison for Jewish students, a representative of the Maccabi sports organization and other "emissaries of all kinds," Hermesh said. The Jewish Agency´s representative in Germany, Anat Kagan, said that on its recent visit the task force met with Jewish community leaders, new immigrants and Jewish students. They did not meet with representatives of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the main Jewish umbrella group, whose board was in Israel at the time. But they did talk to leaders of both Reform and Orthodox Jewish communities here, including representatives of Chabad and the Lauder program. The delegation noted the isolation of many small Jewish communities across Germany and the lack of Jewish education and religious leaders in those areas, Kagan said. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, immigration from the former Soviet Union has tripled Germany´s Jewish community to more than 100,000. To prevent the absorption burden from falling solely on larger established communities in Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt, the German government, in agreement with the Central Council, has distributed the newcomers to dozens of communities across the country. Representatives of the Central Council could not be reach for comment. While many celebrate the reestablishment of Jewish life here — even in cities that had no Jewish community before the Nazi era — Jewish leaders say it is a major challenge to meet the immigrants´ needs. The newcomers need language and job skills in order to build new lives, and many have little or no knowledge about Judaism, due to decades of religious suppression in the former Soviet Union. Their connections with the community are tenuous at best. "In some places, a rabbi arrives once in three weeks," Hermesh said. "No one knows how to read Torah. I am afraid it will go on in this direction, because they are isolated. You can´t create a Jewish life with 160 families." The task force "came to study the situation and I tried to show them reality," said Bloch, head of the Frankfurt-based Central Welfare Council. "And I hope that it will lead to productive cooperation." "The fact that they came here shows that there is a changing attitude in Israel," he added. Bloch accompanied the group on much of their trip. "They recognize that the Jewish community here is the third largest in Europe," he said. "They said from the beginning that it was not about moving to Israel, but about improving life in Germany," said Jana Vimensky, 27, head of the Berlin Jewish Student Union. She was one of several students who met with the group on July 15. Students had met previously with Jewish Agency representatives and their interest "did not surprise me," she said, but she added that she hoped they would "finally do something."
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.