Rabbis were going to gather in Munich to dream up post-pandemic Jewish life. Then another COVID wave hit.


MUNICH (JTA) – The scene here was supposed to be jubilant this week: After a year and a half of lockdowns and curtailed community activity, rabbis from across Europe were due to gather for a conference to dream big about post-pandemic Jewish life.

Instead, rising COVID-19 case counts caused the Conference of European Rabbis to cancel the three-day event.

“When infections began rising we realized we needed to postpone to March,” said Gady Gronich, the group’s Munich-based CEO. “It was done with a heavy heart. But it had to be done.”

The government didn’t pull the plug on the event, Gronich said, but as the scale of the fourth wave became apparent, “it became inevitable.”

The surge in cases across Europe, but especially in Germany and Austria, has put a damper on what many had hoped would be a lasting emergence from pandemic strictures. After the most recent lockdown in Munich ended in May, many community leaders had invested in reinvigorating communal activity. Now, locals are gearing up to instead celebrate Hanukkah alone and wonder yet again about what the future holds.

“We were pretty active in the community before COVID, but now not so much, because there’s very little that they’re able to offer,” Andi Katz, a mother of two, said outside the Ohel Jakob Synagogue. “I miss full community life very much.”

But conditions now are better than earlier in the pandemic for Munich’s Jewish community of about 9,500 members – Germany’s second-largest after Berlin. Katz was watching her two young sons play in Saint Jacob’s Square, the site of the city’s Jewish community complex housing the synagogue, Jewish museum and cafe, and Einstein, Munich’s only full-service kosher restaurant. 

All of the facilities and others in Munich were closed from March to May 2020, and residents’ movement was restricted to the immediate surroundings of their homes, in an effort to beat back the pandemic’s punishing first wave.

Now, as is the case in many places where the availability of vaccines has transformed the pandemic’s risks, the facilities are open with precautions in place. Per a government mandate imposed last week, vaccination certificates are required for entry, and masks are inspected to make sure they meet the stringent FFP2 standard. On a recent day, one foreign visitor was turned away because her mask was lower quality.

Synagogues, too, are open, at least for now. Ohel Jakob, one of two synagogues to hold services on weekdays, not just Shabbat, drew 30 men on a recent evening — a larger-than-average crowd as members fear a potential restrictions ahead. 

“I don’t usually come to synagogue but it’s always nice to be able to,” said Micha Gendelmann, a local Jewish man in his fifties who was born in what is today Ukraine. “So today I took off early from work to actually make use of the synagogue being open.”

Jews listen to prayers at the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich, Nov. 23, 2021. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Currently, houses of worship are allowed to operate if they observe social distancing. But an imminent closure of places of worship and other gathering spots seems possible in Bavaria, the southern state whose capital is Munich, and whose authorities have been among the most stringent in Europe in terms of applying COVID-19 emergency measures during the current wave.

On Monday, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder ordered the closure of all bars, clubs and live venues for at least three weeks starting Nov. 24. Munich’s famed Christmas market was canceled last week, at the same time that the Conference of European Rabbis decided to defer its meeting.

The measures applied in Germany are laxer than in neighboring Austria, which announced last week that it would become Europe’s first democracy to impose a vaccine mandate for all adult citizens. Germany and Austria have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe, though their rates are higher than the United States’.

The prevalence of disease, combined with the relatively large numbers of unvaccinated adults, mean Germany is projected to experience many instances of serious illness and death in the coming months.

“The current pandemic situation in Germany is dramatic, I can’t say it any other way,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last week. “The fourth wave is hitting our country with full force.” 

Given the current conditions, “the Conference of European Rabbis needed to demonstrate responsibility” by canceling its meeting, said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the body’s president.

The group’s steering committee of 35 people met in Munich as scheduled. With fewer distractions and mingling opportunities, “the discussions were very brisk and focused,” Goldschmidt said.

Goldschmidt was less able to envision a silver lining for a communal lockdown. Online services and other community events were well attended during the first two lockdowns, he observed, “but when the novelty wore off, attendance dropped. It’s not a replacement to actual communal life.” 

Children play soccer outside the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich, Nov. 23, 2021. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

Indeed, a new lockdown would be a “painful blow and setback” to Yaacov Sellem, the 44-year-old catering professional who runs the community’s only kosher restaurant, which opened at the Saint Jacob’s Square Jewish complex in 2007. 

Since it is affiliated with the Munich Jewish community, it is not intended to generate profit but is instead geared toward covering most if not all of its operating costs. In addition to a French kosher food specialist as its manager, the restaurant has a menu offering both local foods such as schnitzel and strudel for Israeli tourists, and Israeli foods like shawarma and hummus for Jewish and non-Jewish locals in the market for a taste of Israel.

“This place was doing very well before COVID, we had days when we were full,” said Sellem, who divides his time between Munich and his native Sarcelles, a heavily Jewish suburb of Paris. “Now the restaurant is losing money.” 

Sellem said that he had wanted to quit before the pandemic hit because he was tired of traveling. But he stayed on through the crisis out of a sense of duty, he said.

“I hope we can remain open,” Sellem said. “Not so much for the bottom line but because a kosher restaurant is a sort of glue that adds to any Jewish community’s cohesiveness.”

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks in Germany, it’s clear to many in the Jewish community that the only thing to count on is unpredictability.

The new restrictions and the cancellation of the rabbis conference are “part of our routine lives nowadays,” said Schlomo Hofmeister, the Munich-born rabbi of the Jewish Community organization in Vienna. “We try to live a normal life, we try to plan for normality and again and again we are overtaken by reality.”

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