BERLIN, July 30 (JTA) — When Leibel Rosenberg first visited the United States in 1984, he heard the usual question: “Why are you living in Germany? Don’t go back there! It’s horrible.” “Yes, this was my biggest dream, to come to America,” the librarian from Nuremberg told his hosts. “But you wouldn’t let us in!” Virtually every Jew who has chosen post-Holocaust Germany as his or her home has faced this question. many even have asked it of themselves. As Jews ask forgiveness for their sins on Yom Kippur, some are even using the language of atonement to describe the relationship between American and German Jewry. “No one has absolved himself of this ‘basic sin’ of coming back to Germany,” said Michael May, executive director of the Berlin Jewish community. In fact, there are two basic “sins” for Jews in the United States and Germany. On the one hand, there’s the American Jewish “sin” of refusing to acknowledge their German brethren; on the other, there’s the German Jewish “sin” of choosing to live here after the Holocaust. American Jewish organizations have “shunned Germany and the German-Jewish community,” Joel Levy, New York regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, told JTA. Levy, founding chairman of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Germany and former head of the American Embassy office in Berlin, lived here with his wife from 1992 to 2001. “There was and still is a fair amount of skepticism,” he said. But forgiveness and change are in the air, as American Jews in recent years have been exploring Jewish life in Germany to an unprecedented degree. “We have gotten dozens of visitors, all of whom are impressed with the development of Jewish life in Germany,” said Deidre Berger, managing director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, which opened in 1998. This year, leaders of Germany’s Jewish community took two groundbreaking trips to the U.S. Their goals: to introduce American Jews to their German cousins and to show the Germans how their American counterparts tackle challenges of immigration, assimilation, Middle East politics and anti-Semitism. America’s “is a very mature Jewish community and we can learn a lot from them on many levels,” May said after a recent a fact-finding trip to Washington and New York. The trip was organized by the Central Welfare Council of Jews in Germany and by Bridge of Understanding, a German program that builds connections between American Jews and Germans. “I met many Jewish Americans in East Berlin, but it was always ‘hello’ and nothing more,” said Hermann Simon, director of a Berlin Jewish archive and museum known as the Stiftung Centrum Judaicum. Simon recently made his first trip to the United States to promote a book on Jewish Berlin that he co-authored with Rabbi Andreas Nachama, director of Topography of Terror, and Julius Schoeps, director of the Moses Mendelssohn Center of Potsdam University. The visit by the trio — known as the “three tenors” of Berlin’s Jewish community — was sponsored by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation and Bridge of Understanding. The relationship “has developed,” said Judith Hart, editor in chief of Germany’s main Jewish newspaper, the Juedische Allgemeine Zeitung. “People are traveling and meeting each other, especially American Jews who didn’t want to come before,” she said. “There is less prejudice and more openness to learning.” The recent fact-finding mission demonstrated that the two communities, so different in size, stability and confidence, face similar problems: integrating immigrants, transmitting Jewish faith and values to coming generations and fighting anti-Semitism. There are, of course, major differences. While America’s freedom of religion also means freedom to assimilate, nowhere are there more recognized branches of Judaism, synagogues, Jewish schools and social, religious and political organizations than in the United States, where Jews number nearly 6 million. By comparison, Germany has a Jewish population of just 100,000. Its pre-war infrastructure virtually destroyed, the community has had to rebuild both physically and spiritually. The process took a major leap with the arrival of more than 70,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union since the fall of the Berlin Wall. That influx has been both a boon and a bane. Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has celebrated the population growth as a nearly miraculous sign that Jewish life is again possible in Germany. Many Jewish leaders here say Jews finally are “unpacking their suitcases,” embracing the idea of staying in Germany. But “we are understandably stressed, overtaxed” by the tremendous immigration, said Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Jewish community of Munich and a vice president of the Central Council. The newcomers “have to come to us for every problem. We don’t have the resources to give them such a warm welcome,” Knobloch said. He said he returned from the Central Welfare Council trip to the United States “deeply impressed by the commitment of groups working with their own funds exclusively for the new immigrants. I came back to Germany and said, ‘I wish every Russian here could go there.’ ” May was struck by “the well-defined, organized network of lobbying organizations” in the United States, which are an integral part of American politics. Another participant on the Welfare Council trip, Central Council executive director Stephan Kramer, said he hoped “better communication lines across the Atlantic” would lead more American rabbis to come to Germany, even temporarily. There are only about 23 rabbis for more than 80 synagogues in Germany today. Kramer, who was impressed by the sports club at a Jewish community center in Washington, also wants the German community to develop athletic centers. In many American Jewish communities, the JCC is “not just a place that is used only for Jewish holidays,” he said. “It is a living place, where you can meet people — a real service station for the community, which also brings non-Jews into contact with Jews.” Ultimately, such exchange trips are a way for Jews from Germany “to get an idea of Judaism as lived in the U.S. — the challenges, the problems and the success stories,” Kramer said. “On the other side, I see the visits also in terms of sending our ambassadors who can give a much better picture, face to face, about German Jewry for American Jews.” Eugene DuBow, founding managing director of the AJCommittee’s Berlin office and American consultant to Bridge of Understanding, agreed. “When there is a mixing, when people can actually get to see and meet each other, the anxieties and hostilities retreat somehow,” he said. Perhaps a new era is dawning. But listening to each other is only the first step: Each side also must be prepared to change, said Robert Goldmann, director emeritus of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “American Jews should not barge in with donations, and not just set up chairs in universities,” Goldmann said. “Rather, we should help German Jews shape their own process of identifying themselves,” based on the American experience as an immigrant country. “American Jews should realize that they still have some brothers here,” Rosenberg said. “We are not starving, no one is killing us, but we need contact with Jews, because we all face the same challenges. “And to German Jews I say: If you want to feel German, that’s all right, you are entitled,” he said. “But there are Jews all over the world. Go and learn from them if you can.”
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.