As German Jewish Identity Shifts, Community in Danger of Splitting
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As German Jewish Identity Shifts, Community in Danger of Splitting

The recent announcement of a split in the Berlin Jewish community may be the first indication of a seismic shift affecting all of German Jewry.

Superficially it is a struggle between the established postwar Jewish community and the new majority — recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

More fundamentally the rift reflects the fact that the identity of Germany’s Jewish population has changed 62 years after the end of World War II and that more painful changes may be looming.

Ultimately, observers say, the split is about the need for new power structures in the German Jewish community, which has quadrupled to more than 120,000 since 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That may mean shattering the historical “united community.”

After months of angry exchanges pitting Albert Meyer, an attorney and former president of the Berlin Jewish community, against representatives of the new Russian majority, Meyer announced in mid-April that he had joined with historian Julius Schoeps to form a breakaway group.

Ironically Meyer won his presidency in 2003 thanks to Russian-speaking voters, a key constituency in any leadership election these days. But in 2005 Arkadi Schneiderman, a former Meyer ally, accused him of taking community funds. The charges did not stick but Meyer was voted out, replaced by the Russian immigrants’ new favorite, Gideon Joffe.

Meyer told German media that the Russian-speaking leadership is not interested in religion, calling them “pseudo-Bolsheviks who want to turn the community into a Russian club.”

“The German-speaking minority is being pushed to the side,” Meyer told JTA in a telephone interview.

Neither Joffe nor the Moscow-based World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews responded to requests for an interview for this article.

Meyer said he was confident that several hundred members of Berlin’s pre-unification Jewish community would join his new group. Som! e report edly left the community during the ’05 brouhaha. Meyer has said he has a building in mind for a new synagogue and financial sponsors lined up.

Meyer’s announcement has rocked the foundation of the Berlin Jewish community, which unlike most Jewish communities in the United States and United Kingdom has functioned virtually without exception as a united community. One board has been making all decisions on programming and personnel for schools, synagogues and other institutions.

“I am not very much in favor of splitting the Jewish community,” Meyer told JTA, “but the present leadership of the community does not give me an option.”

Some observers have suggested that the rift centers on competition for governmental subsidies to religious groups. Others say it is about the Jewish community’s difficult postwar maturation.

The split isn’t just between the Russian speakers and the establishment, said Sergey Lagodinsky, a fellow with the Global Public Policy Institute and former program director at the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin.

It boils down to “the lack of a strong and integrative leadership,” Lagodinsky, whose family immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union, told JTA in an e-mail interview.

“The rift goes between the older guard vs. the younger people, between religiously conservative Jews and religiously liberal Jews, between those advocating unconditional Israel support and those who consider themselves more liberal,” he said.

But “the Russian-on-Russian rift is much more painful than all other aforementioned problems because here there is a real conflict over power, which will be deteriorating,” he said.

In short, Germany’s Jewish community is struggling to come to terms with the fact that it is not monolithic and perhaps cannot be represented anymore by one overarching body.

While the tremors may affect the Berlin community, the epicenter lies within the Central Council of Jew! s in Ger many, the secular body that represents the country’s Jews.

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council, told Berlin’s Tageszeitung newspaper that he took the news of the founding of a new community “very seriously.” He said the community’s current board failed to develop a workable concept to bring the two sides together.

“The integration of Russian-speaking new members is very important, but the needs of the established members must not be neglected,” Kramer said, adding that this had happened too much in recent years.

He suggested that Berlin, with the largest Jewish community in Germany, had a certain responsibility to set a good example on this score.

Rabbi Andreas Nachama, a former president of the Berlin Jewish community whose congregation recently joined the World Union for Progressive Judaism, said the country’s Jewish population is increasingly diverse.

What used to hold the postwar community together was the fact that “they were all Holocaust survivors,” Nachama said. That’s no longer the case.

Rabbi Josh Spinner blamed the current problems on two issues personalities and “the inability of some in the old postwar community to accept that the world has changed.”

Once they no longer had control of the united community, these parties quickly found the structure “inconvenient,” Spinner, vice president of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, wrote in an e-mail.

The Lauder Foundation has Orthodox schools for men and women in Berlin, and Spinner has a friendly working relationship with the Jewish communal leadership, but he’s not allied with any group.

It’s not about religion, Spinner emphasized, since both Russians and Germans have undertaken Orthodox and liberal initiatives in recent years.

“This is about change, personalities, and the overprominence and oversubsidizing of Jewish life in Germany today,” he said.

That said, Meyer and Schoeps are doing the right thing, Spinner said.

“If there are Jews anywhere in the world who do not like the communal options available to them, they can and do set up new communities or synagogues or whatever,” he said. “Why should Germany be any different?”

Yet there are differences, Spinner admitted. Most important, the German government subsidizes united religious communities; once communities fragment they fight for those subsidies.

Meanwhile, a breakaway congregation may mean the end of the united community, said Irene Runge, a founder of the former East German Jewish Cultural Association.

A new group could appeal to “all those young Jews from the U.S. and U.K. in Berlin who don’t care for the old-fashioned community and don’t speak Russian, either.”

The next election in Berlin’s Jewish community is plan! ned for November. Its results may well prove a harbinger of change in all Germany’s Jewish communities where, it seems, the old glue may not hold much longer.

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