BERLIN (JTA) – Jews in Germany have been shaken this summer by a diminutive cantor with a big voice. But not in the way one might think.
True, Avitall Gerstetter has one powerful set of pipes, as anyone who has heard her lead services at Berlin’s Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue can testify. Facing the Torah Ark, she could practically open the velvet curtain with her soprano voice alone.
But now, Gerstetter — the first German-born female cantor — is a persona non grata in that very sanctuary in former East Berlin, after she penned a column critical of conversion in Germany in Die Welt, a major German newspaper.
In the column, titled “Why the increasing number of converts is a problem for Judaism,” Gerstetter charged that too many people in Germany convert for the wrong reasons — such as to atone for their family’s Nazi past or to identify with the victims rather than perpetrators — and she criticized the fact that converts fill numerous Jewish leadership roles in Germany.
“I know that one should not talk about the giur,” Gerstetter wrote, using the Hebrew word for conversion and citing Jewish law’s frowning on differentiation between converts and people who were born Jewish.
“But can this be true always and everywhere?” she asked. “The very large number of new Jews has led to a considerable change in Jewish life in Germany. In some services and during some speeches I feel more reminded of an interreligious event than of the visit to the synagogue I have been familiar with since childhood.”
The only person Gerstetter cited by name was Rabbi Walter Homolka, a convert to Judaism who founded Germany’s Reform rabbinical seminary, the Abraham Geiger College, in 1999, and is currently mired in controversy.
But in the synagogue where she worked for two decades, her column hit hard. Its rabbi, Gesa Ederberg, converted to Judaism while studying at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1995; she later entered rabbinical school and was ordained in Israel in 2003. A number of synagogue regulars have converted as well. Many perceived Gerstetter’s column as a personal attack.
“Those people in our shul who converted, and who adore her wonderful voice, they are flabbergasted,” Ederberg said the day the article appeared.
She said Gerstetter raised important questions. “The phenomenon of so many converts in Germany is a really interesting and sometimes very problematic phenomenon, and it needs to be looked at with clear eyes,” Ederberg said. “Being conscious and open about it is something that is required of people who have converted, including myself.”
But Gerstetter was negative about most conversions, Ederberg noted, asking, “How can she lead our prayers if this is how she feels?”
A few days after the column ran, a post appeared on the synagogue’s Facebook page announcing that Gerstetter had been “released from her duties by the Jewish Community of Berlin until further notice.”
There was no explanation included, and there is as yet no information on the Jewish community website. But the synagogue’s Facebook page also posted a separate statement the same day emphasizing that it “welcomes all worshippers, regardless of whether they were born Jewish or converted, and it is a central value of our synagogue that everyone feels comfortable and respected here, no matter what their Jewish path has been up to this point.”
Gerstetter is planning legal action against the Jewish Community of Berlin over her dismissal. Die Welt reported Aug. 26 that she had retained attorney Markus Kelber, known for his expertise in employment law.
Gerstetter has not responded to requests for comment. But it’s clear that her words have reverberated throughout Germany’s Jewish community, with people coming down on all sides.
A switch to “the other side”
Gerstetter laid out two arguments in her column. First, she said that while conversion had helped revitalize the post-Holocaust Jewish community, the number of converts “has risen sharply” in the last three decades — and that Jewish communities had been too quick to approve some conversions.
Those with Jewish fathers have a legitimate reason to convert, she said. But others, she said, may be motivated by a disconnect from the faiths of their parents, or — in a uniquely German twist — by a “wish to be allowed to switch to ‘the other side’ — from the perpetrator’s family to a new, Jewish family construct as a bizarre form of abstract reparation.”
What’s more, Gerstetter argued, too many of the new converts are becoming rabbis and community leaders, leading to what she said was a Judaism not steeped in experience and tradition, but rather “a theoretical Judaism, almost an entirely new religion” — one that she called “soulless.”
“There is a need for clear rules as to when and why converts can hold high positions in the community,” wrote Gerstetter, whose father converted to Judaism. “Diluting Jewish tradition cannot be an option.”
Many German Jews reject Gerstetter’s contention that converts are attenuating the country’s Jewish community and character.
“To speak of a growing problem is out of the question,” said Rabbi Andreas Nachama, who heads the General Rabbinical Conference, or ARK, Germany’s progressive rabbinical body whose rabbinical court mostly sees applications from people with Jewish fathers seeking to cement their status under traditional Jewish law, known as halacha. Unlike the American Reform movement, Germany’s liberal movement does not accept patrilineal descent.
And “to speak of a ‘dilution’ is generally forbidden for ethical reasons alone and is an impertinence,” Nachama added, on behalf of the ARK. “All in all, gerim [converts] are an enrichment for the communities.”
But others say Gerstetter has a point. Conversions “have gone out of proportion. It is a symptom of trauma for both sides,” said Barbara Steiner, a historian and therapist whose 2015 book, “Die Inszenierung des Jüdischen” — “The Staging of Jewishness” — examines the conversion of Germans to Judaism after 1945. Steiner herself converted when marrying her Jewish husband in 2000.
While it’s impossible to pin down the number of Jewish converts in Germany today, official records suggest that they make up only a small proportion of the overall Jewish population.
In all, there are about 100,000 members of Jewish communities under the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and as many more who are not affiliated. A great majority are Jews who arrived from the former Soviet Union since 1990.
Within the past 21 years, 1,697 people converted in, according to the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany — an average of about 80 people a year over that period. In 2021, a total of 43 conversions were completed, and of those, the majority were Orthodox, according to a source close to the Orthodox beit din, or Jewish religious court.
The question of how many of those converts have assumed formal leadership positions in their communities is even harder to answer. Some of the graduates of Abraham Geiger College are converts to Judaism, as is the case at many non-Orthodox rabbinical schools in the United States, but many of them do not work in Germany.
Whether that matters is core to the dispute Gerstetter brought to the fore with her column. Jewish law recognizes converts as Jews and frowns upon differentiating between them and people born Jewish. People who have converted to Judaism are permitted to become rabbis following the same lengthy course of study — often five or six years — required of people who are born Jewish. And in many cases, because they have chosen the religion, converts can be more fastidious adherents to Jewish law than people who were born Jewish.
“Very often, converts in our communities are going in front of us — they make the not-so-traditional parts of the community see what they are supposed to be doing,” said Rabbi Zsolt Balla, a board member of Germany’s Orthodox Rabbinical Conference. Balla is not a convert, but his background, too, reflects the complexity of European Jewish families: His father was not Jewish and he was raised secular in Hungary.
It’s even OK to come to Judaism through a confrontation with the Nazi past, Balla said.
“Sometimes it happens that someone faces the dark past of his or her own family and… becomes acquainted and passionate about Judaism,” he said. “That does happen and it is definitely not a disqualification.”
As a matter of fact, Balla noted, “the Talmud says that the descendants of Haman” — the antagonist of the Purim story — “became rabbis in Bnei Brak. So it is not without a precedent in Jewish history that the most eager persecutors of Jews produced people who became learned rabbis.”
Responding to Gerstetter’s suggestion that German rabbis who are converts are signing off on lax conversions for others, Balla noted that there is no Jewish law against converts becoming community leaders. But, he said, there is a tradition “that if converts proceed to become rabbis and judges, they are not permitted to take part in proceedings related to giur,” or conversion, Balla said. “In Orthodox circles, it does not happen that converts are enabling others to convert.”
“The discussion about how many converts we can take in has been going on at least for 20 to 25 years,” said Steiner, who noted that after the Holocaust conversion became an important tool for preserving Jewish communities in Germany.
A postwar conversion spree
German Jewry was eviscerated by the Holocaust, the genocide against European Jews perpetrated by the Nazi government of Germany. After the Allied-run displaced persons camps were closed in the 1950s, there were only some 25,000 Jews living in former West Germany and only a few hundred in the east.
There were also thousands of people who wanted to convert to Judaism. After Berlin’s top rabbi received thousands of requests for conversion, a special commission was created in 1950 to review the applications and ensure that former Nazis were not allowed to convert. Some of the requests came from people who wanted to access benefits available to German Jews, but many came from Germans burdened by feelings “of guilt and shame and shock” over the Holocaust, according to Steiner, who reviewed the applications as part of her research.
Most of the applicants were rejected, but many — mostly women married to Jewish men, including survivors — became Jewish, setting the stage for a community that includes many converts.
“I don’t know any German Jewish family that was not at one point involved with a beit din,” Steiner said.
Even against that backdrop, the current circumstances stand out, Steiner said. She said she largely agrees with Gerstetter, though she wishes the cantor had made her case with more nuance and within the Jewish community, not in the mainstream press. Jewish courts should be tougher on whom to accept, Steiner said, and new converts should be more modest in their goals.
“I really believe that the second row for a convert in the Jewish community is a good enough position,” she said. “You still cannot be there as a rabbi speaking the prayer for remembering Holocaust victims who were murdered maybe by your own ancestors. There is definitely a red line.”
She added, referring to the ritual bath in which immersion is required for conversion, “You cannot give this [Nazi] heritage away with a bath in the mikvah.”
Steiner said it was possible to reconcile one’s German heritage with a decision to become Jewish — but only if that reconciliation is done with careful deliberation.
“You have to find a way to deal with these ambivalences. This is what the old generation of rabbis expected” of converts, she said. “And I think Gesa Ederberg is one of the exceptions: She always said, ‘I am a convert, but I never thought I could be a rabbi in Germany.’”
Several of the other members of the progressive rabbinical conference are converts like Ederberg. Some of them have previously said that they deferred converting to avoid appearing to identify with Holocaust victims or pursuing a religious affiliation for opportunistic reasons. But after participating in Jewish communities for many years, they ultimately did convert — then pursued rabbinical ordination.
German converts to Judaism who are rabbis say the Holocaust is indeed present in their leadership.
One rabbi who grew up in Germany, converted to Judaism before becoming ordained and now serves a congregation in another country said questions about the Holocaust frequently arise. (The rabbi requested anonymity to avoid inflaming the conversion debate further.) The congregation “wanted to know what my family did in the Holocaust and how I think about the Holocaust. I responded,” the rabbi said. And at commemoration events, “I usually frame — and hand over.”
When people ask Ederberg about her family background, she tells them that both her grandfathers were soldiers in World War II, one dying in the battle at Stalingrad. “The other one told me years later that he was a mechanic and was really happy he didn’t have to shoot,” she said. “But he was still part of the system.”
“Being a German who converted to Judaism, you have this special weight and responsibility to be very clear about these issues,” Ederberg added. “And everyone who converts with me has to deal with it.”
Ultimately, Gerstetter’s column mourns a double loss: Nearly wiped out by the Holocaust, the Jewish community slowly built back, only to suffer what she says has been a “loss of the strong identification that existed in the post-Shoah years.”
Even if, as Gerstetter suggests, Jewish communities put the brakes on conversion to maintain a shaky balance towards Jews by birth, “the train has left the station a long time ago,” as Steiner puts it.
Whatever happens next, it is important not to undermine the converts among us, said Balla: They are part of the future. Even as rabbis.
“I would not suggest a convert strive for a leadership role. But maybe the person possesses a quality of leadership that no one else has,” he said.