Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World in Germany, Reform Jews May Sue Government over Aid

March 15, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The German branch of Reform Judaism is threatening to sue the federal government for equal treatment, saying it’s illegal for the government to offer financial support only to the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

According to an expert’s analysis released Thursday in advance of a lawsuit, the federal government is required to support all branches of Judaism without prejudice.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder signed a historic contract with the Central Council in January 2003 that pledged the government to provide the Central Council with $3 million annually. The money is supposed to be used for all streams of Judaism that define Jewish identity according to matrilineal descent.

The Union for Progressive Jews in Germany, or UPJ — as the Reform movement is known here — accepts this definition, but repeatedly has been snubbed by the Central Council, according to UPJ President Jan Muhlstein.

Though the Central Council is not legally required to fund the UPJ and thus can’t be sued, the federal government is required to give equal treatment under the constitution, Muhlstein told JTA.

The analysis, delivered Thursday to Interior Minister Otto Schily, was prepared for the UPJ by attorney Axel von Campenhausen, an expert in church-state law in Germany. A letter also was delivered to the president of the German Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse.

There has been no official reaction yet from German government leaders.

Nathan Kalmanowicz, a Central Council board member responsible for religious matters, said the UPJ can’t claim that it gets no federal funding via the Central Council.

"We do give," he said — though perhaps not as much as the UPJ wants.

"They are about 1,500 people," Kalmanowicz said, "and we have about 100,000 Jews in Germany."

In the past, a point of contention for the Central Council has been the policy on conversion in some Reform communities. That has become a major issue since the immigration to Germany of tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, who often come with spouses and children who are not Jewish.

Reform conversions generally are not accepted by Orthodox communities, and the Central Council adheres to Orthodox rules in determining who is a Jew.

In a telephone interview, Muhlstein said the German Reform movement had waited years for a concrete positive sign from the Central Council, and that recent signs of warming never brought more than meager benefits.

Meanwhile, he said, there currently are 13 Reform, or Progressive, congregations in Germany, with two more expected to join the movement.

For its part, the Central Council has 83 Jewish communities under its umbrella. Some of the Progressive communities have applied for membership, but there has been no action on this, Muhlstein said. He said the World Union for Progressive Judaism is fully supportive of the decision by the German branch to take action.

In reference to the World Union’s support, Kalmanowicz said, "We are not interested in international organizations threatening the Central Council. We are interested in Jewish groups in Germany."

Recommended from JTA