Court ruling against historic Berlin shul suggests congregation is a fiction


BERLIN (JTA) — On paper, it was one of Berlin’s oldest shuls, a rare independent congregation on the east side of this once-divided city that with the help of government subsidies said it maintained services for 1,000 members.

But in reality it’s not clear how many Jews, if any, attended the Adass Yisroel synagogue, located behind a courtyard on Tucholskystrasse in this city’s Mitte section. Nor is it clear what, exactly, the people behind the shul did with the money they received from the government of the state of Berlin.

Last week, a Berlin court ruled that Adass Yisroel cheated the state and must pay back about $265,000 in state subsidies, as well as all legal costs resulting from a lawsuit filed by the congregation against the government in 2010.

Adass Yisroel could appeal the ruling, but if it holds, it could spell the end of this rare East Berlin congregation.

The congregation was re-established in 1997 after German unification, claiming it was the sole successor to a congregation founded in 1869. It claimed 1,000 members, so it was eligible for approximately $862,000 annually in government subsidies.

Between 2001 and 2006, Adass Yisroel received $636,000 to $803,000 each year from the government. The synagogue is not part of the United Jewish Community of Berlin and thus did not receive funds from that body.

When the state tried to audit Adass Yisroel in 2008, the congregation refused to open its books, maintaining that its status as a religious organization made it exempt from such an audit. The government stopped funding Adass Yisroel in 2010, demanding repayment of some of the subsidies it had paid to the synagogue, spurring the shul’s lawsuit.

An investigation found that the congregation had claimed government subsidies for nonexistent personnel and for a fleet of cars without submitting a drivers’ log. Synagogue director Mario Offenberg and his wife also reportedly charged the state for their annual business-class flight to Spain, claiming they were visiting the local Jewish community.

Tagesspiegel reported that the Berlin Senate told the court it doubted that Adass Yisroel actually had any members other than Offenberg. There was no evidence of any articles of incorporation, board of directors, personnel or members, the court found.

Explaining the court’s decision on March 22, Judge Christoph Heydemann said the congregation did not have the right to refuse to open its books.

Neither Offenberg nor the congregation’s attorney, Raimund Koerner, have indicated whether or not they will appeal the court’s decision. They do not need to do so until the court issues its ruling in writing, which will happen in April, according to a court spokesperson. The spokesperson said that neither Offenberg nor Koerner appeared in the Berlin courtroom on March 22. Offenberg did not respond to inquiries by JTA, and his congregation said it had no comment because the court ruling had yet to be put down in writing.

More than 20,000 Jews are estimated to live in Berlin today. Some 11,000 belong to the main community, which funds several synagogues across the denominational spectrum. There are also several independent congregations.

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