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As Germany Agrees to Fund Jews, Liberal Jews Fights for Recognition

January 10, 2003
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A long-simmering internecine Jewish battle in Germany is boiling over.

Saying they have been shut out of official Jewish life here, progressive Jews in Germany have intensified efforts to gain recognition and funding with an open plea to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

In a letter released at a Jerusalem news conference on Jan. 7, Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, urged the German leader "to address the needs and the entitlements of the Union der Progressiven Juden in Deutschland and the communities and institutions it represents."

There has been as yet no response from the Schroeder government to the letter, Shmuel Bahagon, executive director of the Union for Progressive Judaism in Germany, told JTA.

The fight highlights a battle between liberal Judaism and Germany’s traditional Jewish officials in what has been the world’s fastest-growing Jewish community.

The move comes as Schroeder prepares to sign a historic contract with the Central Council of Jews in Germany, pledging an annual $3 million of support for the Jewish community. The signing of the contract is scheduled for Jan. 27, Holocaust Memorial Day in Germany.

The established Jewish community is celebrating the pending federal contract, but representatives of the Union of Progressive Judaism in Germany are crying foul.

The problem is that the contract does not clearly include the Progressive movement, which also needs funding to support programs and to attract new members, Regev says.

In his letter, he says, "the anticipated contract has to make explicit reference to the Progressive Union and the communities affiliated with it."

But Central Council President Paul Spiegel said the council includes all streams of Judaism, so specific movements don’t need to be named in the contract.

Spiegel told JTA the council would not exclude any Jewish group from membership — and therefore funding — as long as its members meet the requirements of halachah, or Jewish law.

Spiegel said a progressive congregation in Lower Saxony had applied for membership in the Central Council. The application will be considered at the next meeting of the board, he said.

"We have to be convinced — as always — that the members of these communities are Jews, based on halachah. We don’t want the Society for Christian-Jewish Cooperation to become members of the Central Council," he said.

The letter to Schroeder is part of a three-pronged battle in which the World Union, with some 2 million members worldwide, and its German affiliate are pressuring the German government and American Reform Jewry, and through them, the German Jewish establishment that they say refuses to accept them.

Some observers see the battle as long overdue, heralding the return of liberal Judaism to the country of its birth. The Reform movement has its roots in mid-19th century Germany.

But critics see this as an attempt by a small group to establish itself outside the umbrella of the Central Council, thereby laying claim to government subsidies to religious groups. They say such a split is destructive and unnecessary, as long as the members of the Progressive movements meet traditional standards of "who is a Jew."

The Central Council, created after World War II, is designed to be inclusive. But unlike in America, the German model is an umbrella that only covers those defined as Jewish according to Jewish law. Most European Progressive movements abide by matrilineal descent, but their policies on conversion to Judaism do not meet Jewish legal standards.

Though it does not accept non-Jews as members, the Progressive movement encourages non-Jewish spouses and children to participate in religious life as a means of bringing them toward full membership as converts, said a spokesperson.

According to a Progressive Union spokesperson, there are about 2,000 members in 15 Progressive Union congregations in Germany. Excluding the members of the Progressive Union, there are some 100,000 Jews in Germany, and 83 congregations serving them.

In 1998, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution decrying what it called "discrimination" against Reform groups "by the organized Jewish community virtually everywhere" in Germany.

The group called on the German government and officials of the Jewish communities to support pluralism and end discrimination in funding for Progressive Jewish congregations.

In 2002, the Progressive Union in Germany tested the courts, with as-yet-inconclusive results. A congregation in the former East German city of Halle, which belongs to the Progressive Union but chose not to join the Central Council, sued for a share of the state subsidies distributed by the council. According to Germany’s highest administrative court, the congregation did not seek arbitration with the Central Council before suing.

In February 2002, the high court sent the claim back to a lower court to decide whether this was a religious organization worthy of state funding and to determine whether the congregation’s claim was purely financial.

No decision has yet been reached.

In recent weeks, following the November announcement of the new government contract with the German Jewish community, leaders of the World Union and its American affiliate, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, have pressed their case in all the German consulates in the United States, as well as the German embassies in Washington and Tel Aviv.

In each instance, they have been told that the German government is sympathetic to their cause but does not get involved with the internal affairs of religious groups.

Regev told JTA he was encouraged by positive meetings with Paul Spiegel and Central Council Director Stefan Kramer in the fall. "I would not have jumped the gun if it had not been for the surprise announcement about the federal contract," he said. "I would have allowed more time for this to take its course. But we were forced to move."

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