LEIPZIG, Germany (Dec. 20)
It was a rare scene for this city and for Germany: a crowd of Jews, dancing with a Torah under a canopy. Lohr Street glistened under a light snowfall as a chorus line of men wearing yarmulkes, arms linked, celebrated.
The event marked the dedication of a new Torah center in this former East Germany city, where Jews of all ages will be able to deepen their knowledge of Judaism, says Rabbi Josh Spinner, a vice president of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which is co-funding the center together with an anonymous donor.
What could be more fitting than for a British Jewish family with roots in Leipzig to deliver the center’s first Torah, wrapped in a blur of black hats, flying tzitzit and jubilant song?
Members of the Jewish community clapped and cheered as the procession — including Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentreu, head of the Rabbinical Court of London — made its way toward the new Ohel Yehoshua Beis Medrash Torah Center. The center’s first guests will be a group of Jewish youth from Germany, who will spend the first night of Chanukah learning and celebrating the holiday here.
The Jewish community already has a Lauder-sponsored hostel, with separate overnight facilities for men and women.
Now the community has its own Torah and a place to study.
“I wanted to give” the Torah “to a place that really needed it,” said Joshua “Shoei” Rogosnitzky of London, who donated the scroll to the center together with his family and his partner in the watch-making business, Naftali Bollag of Zurich. The new center is named in Rogosnitzky’s honor.
“I thought the community was completely destroyed, and to see a rebirth” is “an incredible thing,” said Shoei’s father, Moishe Rogosnitzky, a London dealer in antique Jewish books. His own grandfather, Leipzig’s last rabbinical judge, and his father, an assistant judge, fled Germany for England in 1938.
The Torah center is one of two new Jewish venues in Leipzig, said Kuef Kaufmann, head of the 1,200-member Jewish community. A Chabad kindergarten opened a few months ago. Most community members are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Germany’s Jewish population has quadrupled to more than 106,000 since 1990 due to a massive influx of former Soviet Jews.
“Jewish life in Leipzig has developed,” Kaufmann told JTA. “It’s not just a museum piece or an obligation of the state. It’s true Jewish life.”
Leipzig’s Torah center is the second such program sponsored by the American Jewish philanthropist Ronald Lauder. The first one opened in Hamburg several years ago.
The foundation also operates a house of learning, the Beit Midrash of Berlin, for men, and a similar program for women in Frankfurt.
Major changes are about to take place, said Spinner, who heads the Beit Midrash in Berlin. The women’s program is about to move to the Beit Midrash’s home in former East Berlin, and the men’s program will move into a newly renovated synagogue nearby that survived the Holocaust, but had not been used by Jews for decades.
The Leipzig program started some seven years ago. On Spinner’s advice, Lauder began supporting a core of dedicated youth, which has grown into a group of young Jewish men and women leading observant lifestyles.
A director of the new Leipzig Jewish educational program will be appointed soon, Spinner said.
On Sunday, the new Torah scroll was passed among rabbis and congregants and children; ultimately the small crowd ended up inside the new Torah center, not far from where the Rogosnitzky ancestors lived.
Speaking in Yiddish, Ehrentreu — whose family fled Frankfurt for England — told the assembly that “God helped us to have a Jewish life in England, and now one must help others. And here comes a Jew from England who has done this not just for himself or his family, but for others.”
The Torah center symbolizes the fact that, “despite the terrible past, we believe in the future,” said George Ban, executive vice president of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
“We ourselves are a memorial for every community member who left against their will and never came back,” Kaufmann added.
At a dinner after the dedication ceremony, the London-Zurich contingent announced that they had raised the funds to build a mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath, for the community.
Watching the ceremony, Gita, a grandmother who immigrated to Germany from Belarus nine years ago, used her cane to prod a photographer standing in her way.
The event “is a very beautiful thing for a good future,” Gita, 84, told JTA afterward. “It’s the future, for youth, for all Jewish life in the world, and not only for Leipzig.”