Austrian congregation fighting Orthodox hegemony under new law


BERLIN (JTA) – Or Chadash, a Liberal congregation in Vienna, has applied for official status to ensure it has a say in religious matters under Austria’s new religion law.

On Tuesday, the European Union for Progressive Judaism launched a letter-writing campaign urging Austria’s minister of education, arts and culture, Claudia Schmied, to recognize the progressive congregation’s application to become a “Kultusgemeinde,” or official Jewish community, under public charter.

Liberal Jewish leaders say the new religion law passed April 19 and due to go into effect within weeks would concentrate power in the hands of Orthodox Jewish groups on all religious matters — from conversions to marriages to burials. The law, which applies to all religions in Austria, establishes so-called religious corporations, or boards, consisting of representatives from state-recognized religious communities.

The five recognized Jewish communities in Austria are Orthodox, and they would be empowered to make religious decisions, including whether or not to approve recognition for a new community, for the nation’s approximately 10,000 Jews. At stake is state funding for schools, teachers and infrastructure.

Thus, proponents argue, it is urgent for the 20-year-old Or Chadash to be granted official status before the law goes into effect.

“It is very much a basic right that should be granted to Liberal Judaism as it is to Orthodox Judaism,” Or Chadash board member David Feiler told JTA.

The congregation put in its application for legal status in anticipation of the new law while trying — and ultimately failing — to influence the wording of the law to explicitly include liberal Judaism.

Or Chadash founder and president Theodor Much says he fears the ministry will reject the congregation’s application. There are about 80 "member units," including families and individuals, in the congregation.

European and international progressive bodies are supporting Oh Chadash’s stance.

Leslie Berman, president of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, expressed reserved optimism. Even if Or Chadash is not formally recognized by the state, Austrian lawmakers “have assured us that Liberal Jews will be represented on the new body,” he told JTA in a phone interview from London. Berman added, however, that “presumably this board will make decisions by majority vote."

An individual reached at the number of Vienna’s chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, told JTA that there would be no comment on the matter until next week. He identified himself only as “the community rabbi.”


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