Can German Jewry sustain boost from Russian immigrants?

Renat Fischbach, outside the Jewish community center in West Berlin. (Toby Axelrod)

Renat Fischbach, outside the Jewish community center in West Berlin. (Toby Axelrod)

Kuf Kaufmann, head of the Leipzig Jewish community, center, at a Torah dedication ceremony there in 2005. (Toby Axelrod)

Kuf Kaufmann, head of the Leipzig Jewish community, center, at a Torah dedication ceremony there in 2005. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN (JTA) — One of the most remarkable transformations in Europe since the fall of communism is the return of Jewish life in the country that generated the Holocaust.

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago last week, postwar Jewish life in Germany was “more a museum piece than something living,” said Kuf Kaufmann, who emigrated here from Russia in 1990 and now heads the Jewish community in Leipzig. “Today it is very lively — socially, religiously and culturally.”

In 1989, Germany had only about 30,000 Jews. Then the doors to the east opened and about 220,000 people of Jewish lineage from the former Soviet republics poured in, about half of whom were Jewish by matrilineal descent, according to a new report by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The immigrants sought economic opportunities and an escape from anti-Semitism, and they chose Germany over Israel.

In all, about 90,000 of the immigrants registered as members of Germany’s Jewish communities, quadrupling the country’s pre-1989 Jewish population.

Lala Suesskind, president of Berlin’s Jewish community, sees in the immigrants parallels to her parents’ experience as refugees from the Soviet interior in 1947.

“At first they did not feel great because they did not speak the language. And then they got jobs, and then they joined the Jewish community, and then their children decided, ‘This is my town,’” Suesskind said.

“It is the same with our people arriving today,” she said. The older generations may have trouble adjusting, but their children and grandchildren “are all part of our Jewish life in Berlin.”

The influx of immigrants ended in 2005, when Germany adopted new rules on immigration that made it more difficult for would-be immigrants. The move came in part due to pressure from Israel, which saw Germany as a competitor for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

While the immigration has transformed Germany’s Jewish community, it also has brought with it the need for more rabbis, outreach to unaffiliated Jews and questions about how to deal with Russian immigrants who are not Jewish according to halachah, or Jewish law, but want to be part of the Jewish community.

In Germany, as in most of Europe, even Reform congregations adhere to Orthodox halachah when it comes to the question of who is a Jew.

“We have to learn from them, to better understand them,” Rabbi Joel Berger, the former chief rabbi of Wurttemberg, said in the report issued by Germany’s Jewish umbrella group. “We have to work together actively to preserve our traditions. There’s no room for passivity and pessimism.”

Some worry that Germany’s Jewish institutions are failing to ensure that the numeric boost to the Jewish community will be enough to ensure a future threatened by assimilation.

“Cultural identity cannot last more than one generation,” said Julia Itin, 24, who came to Dortmund from Odessa, Ukraine in 2000, after first going to Israel. “They have to add in a bit of religion, in any form,” she says, otherwise many “will be lost to the Jewish people.”

Itin, now a university researcher and teacher, has become involved with Jewish causes, volunteering for the Limmud Jewish educational festival in Germany.

Similarly, Renat Fischbach, 28, who arrived from Czernowitz, Ukraine in 1990, discovered a Jewish youth center and later founded a debating club for Jewish youth called Jewbating.

Fischbach said he “always felt more aligned with the smart Russian kids than with the established German families. And in 10 years, these are going to be the minds who lead the community.”

Sipping black currant tea at the Baku cafe in Berlin, Svetlana Agronik, who coordinates Russian social and educational programs for Berlin’s Jewish community, recalls how she came here in 1991.

“Life had been good in Russia, but suddenly there was no bread,” she said. “We took a vacation to visit friends and I did not return to Russia for 12 years.”

Once here, Agronick said she asked herself, “Am I really lucky? These Germans killed so many Jews. But for my daughter Marina, I had to do it.”

Nevertheless, Agronick admits some disappointment. Her daughter, Marina, has little connection to Judaism, and Marina’s boyfriend, who is the father of her child, is a German non-Jew. When he belatedly learned that Marina was Jewish, he told her he was glad because he had heard that all Jews are rich.

Boris Vainrub also has mixed feelings about Germany. His first preference was to live in Israel, where he landed a good job after emigrating from Russia in 1990. But then the Gulf War broke out and Iraqi Scud missiles were raining down on Ramat Gan.

Vainrib said his family fled to Germany, where they were among 300 Israelis given refugee status in Germany at the time.

Vainrib, now the owner of an electronic goods store, said he felt “morally better in Israel. But Germany is calmer.”

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