Gabriel Wolff, an Israeli conscientious objector, froze in mid-sentence.
Rabbi Jacov Ebert was shouting: “How dare you blaspheme our people, our country? I can’t hear this anymore!”
The roomful of Jewish students fell uncharacteristically silent.
Participants in the recent Winter University of the Union of Jewish Students in Germany, they had been listening — many with discomfort — to Wolff’s story of conscientious objection.
Tension was building, and now it seemed all hell might break loose.
But it didn’t.
“Gaby will finish speaking now, and then we can ask questions and make comments,” said Uriel Kashi, the newly elected president of the Union of Jewish Students, who helped coordinate the recent three-day event at the Jewish Community Center in the Bavarian city of Wurzburg.
The discussion that followed was tense, but respectful.
An example of typical German orderliness? Perhaps. But more importantly, this exchange showed that active Jewish students in Germany today are not afraid to rock the boat.
While Jewish leaders here are busy bringing new Russian-speaking immigrants closer to Judaism, combating anti-Semitism in the mainstream society and supporting the State of Israel, the younger generation is looking inward.
And younger German Jews do not shy away from controversy.
“What Jewish community organizations do is essential,” Kashi, 27, said. “But our goal is to listen and discuss in a Jewish atmosphere, to learn about our Jewish identity.”
For example, does it make more sense to be a religious Zionist or to refuse military service in Israel? Is Israel’s “Law of Return” undemocratic? Should one laugh at anti-Semitism? Is homosexuality an illness, a crime or neither? Should Israel accept support from Christian fundamentalists? Does anti-Semitism boost Jewish identity?
These were among the questions some 65 students from across Germany debated at the second Winter University. Held last month, the event was sponsored by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Hagshama department of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish community of Wurzburg, which hosted the students in its community center, which is under construction.
As part of the conference, students viewed “Trembling Before G-d,” a film about Orthodoxy and homosexuality by Sandi Simcha DuBowski, followed by a discussion with Rabbi Binjamin Krauss, director of the Lauder foundation in Frankfurt.
For a break from controversy, they took a walking tour of historical Jewish sites in Wurzburg. Sabbath services were held in the nearly finished synagogue at the community center.
Of the 100,000 Jews in Germany today, about 15,000 are between the ages of 18 and 25.
And about 1,000 are on the mailing list of the Union of Jewish Students, said the group’s outgoing president, Wicka Dolburd, 22. Most are from the former Soviet Union, including Dolburd, whose family emigrated from Moscow in 1990.
For security reasons, the union has not been using posters and other public means to attract new members, Dolburd said.
“But we are planning to make an effort, because it is the most important thing” to bring Jewish students together.
Like active Jewish students anywhere, participants in this event said they appreciated the chance to meet and talk.
“I was so touched by the film about lesbians and gays, because I was pretty sure that all people who choose a religious life cannot have any sexual problems. And that was nonsense,” said Olga Fin, 23, whose family emigrated from Russia to Wurzburg last year. “I think we should not reject people, but try to involve as many Jews as we can.”
And Henry Jakubowicz, 31, said he even found it important to listen to Gabriel Wolff, though he found him “the opposite of courageous.”
“I don’t agree with Gaby at all, but that doesn’t mean I can’t sit down and listen and discuss,” said Jakubowicz, who gave a presentation on “Israel, More Than an Alternative,” expressing his views as a religious Zionist.
For his part, Wolff — a 20-year-old student at the Music Academy in Jerusalem — said he “was very impressed with Henry. I disagree with him 100 percent. I don’t believe in the Bible as absolute truth. But he is a great speaker.”
In the end, Ebert agreed that “the openness was good, even if you hear things that hurt your ears.”
On Saturday evening, the last night of the program, students gathered for a Tu B’Shevat party. The long tables were set with small candles, which were lit in a chain from person to person.
As the students laughed and talked, Wolff slipped out of the room and returned with his violin.
Then, from its strings rose the alternately sweet and sad melody “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” — Hebrew for “Jerusalem of Gold.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.