BERLIN, March 24 (JTA) — The Union for Progressive Judaism in Germany is seeking help from U.S. Reform Jews in an attempt to win recognition and financing from the German government. Claiming that Germany’s main government-funded Jewish body refuses to admit Reform congregations, the union took its fight to Washington. Union members petitioned Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, for help, and Saperstein met with German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger on Tuesday. The meeting — a continuation of contacts begun before German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder signed a historic contract in January 2003 placing the Central Council of Jews in Germany on equal legal footing with the nation’s Protestant and Catholic churches — was an attempt to avert the threat of a lawsuit against the German government. The union claims the government is legally required to support all streams of Judaism, even if the Central Council, which now gets $3 million per year in federal funding, refuses to do so. For its part, the Central Council says its doors are open to diversity. But critics say the issue is power, not diversity. On Tuesday, Ischinger told Saperstein that high-level talks are planned in coming weeks between the German government and the Central Council to try to resolve the issue “in a spirit of reconciliation and partnership.” A background discussion for members of the German Parliament also is planned for Thursday. “I hope our meeting will clarify some issues and make it clear that we are not ignorant of the fact that there is a concern out there,” Ischinger told JTA in a telephone interview after meeting Saperstein. Germany “intended to support all streams of Judaism,” Saperstein said after the meeting. He said he understood Germany’s wish to avoid mixing in internal Jewish affairs. But, he added, “where government money is concerned, there also is a serious concern that there not be discrimination.” Saperstein said the American Reform movement, which has its roots in 19th-century Germany, “is deeply appreciative of the government’s efforts.” The Central Council has avoided commenting on the current fracas. But council members say the group, which is secular in character, does support pluralism — without funding any so-called pluralistic religious organizations. Most Central Council congregations are traditional, but the past decade has seen the acceptance of a few egalitarian congregations, the appointment of non-Orthodox rabbis — including two women — and support for a non-Orthodox youth organization. Supporters of the council point out that it has played a major role in rebuilding Jewish life in postwar Germany. But Katarina Seidler, deputy president of the Progressive Union in Germany, said it’s high time that Reform communities got their due. She said they receive only minimal sums from the council for events co-sponsored with a Central Council congregation, and via the Jewish Central Welfare Council for integration of immigrants. Last year, a liberal youth organization, Young and Jewish, received about $15,000 from the Central Council, but the organization is not a part of the Progressive Union, said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which is supporting the German branch’s bid for recognition. Regev does not believe the real obstacle is theological. “It’s more a reluctance of the establishment that is administering large sums of public funds to see newcomers challenge their rule,” he said. Supporters of the Central Council say it’s the union that is power hungry. Though Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council, has not commented, others say there already are alternatives to Orthodoxy under the Central Council umbrella that can meet a small but growing demand for more progressive fare. “The Central Council is the united roof for many different groups that also represent the same views as the union,” said Michael Fuerst, who heads the Central Council’s state association in Lower Saxony. Rabbi Jonah Sievers told JTA that the Central Council paid his tuition at the liberal Leo Baeck Rabbinical College in London. Ordained in 2002, Sievers serves an egalitarian congregation in Braunschweig and two smaller congregations, all under the Central Council. Change is happening, Sievers said, but “it’s a process.” That process could be more peaceful, said Rabbi Henry Brandt of Dortmund, who is liberal in orientation and whose congregation belongs to the Central Council. “It’s the normal Jewish way not to call on the courts,” he said.
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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.