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New Leader of Berlin’s Jews Plans Focus on Soviet Emigres

May 8, 2001
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In his first public remarks since being elected president of Berlin’s Jewish community, Alexander Brenner has condemned the “latent anti-Semitism” in Germany reflected in news reporting on Israel.

Anti-Israel sentiment in the German media “has awakened bad memories,” Brenner said.

“Every Jew already hears in his head the next step: Instead of `Don’t buy from Jews,’ it is `Don’t buy from Israelis,'” he told the Berliner Zeitung daily, referring to the 1933 Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses in Germany.

“Jews can stand on their heads — it won’t get rid of anti-Semitism,” he said. “I see the discussion about Israel as a vent for latent anti-Semitism in this country.”

Brenner, who announced his candidacy late in the campaign, ousted incumbent Andreas Nachama, 49, in Jewish community elections last week. Observers said Nachama lost the election because he had not responded strongly enough to the needs of ex-Soviet constituents.

Though he won a majority of the popular vote in March, thus securing a place on the community council, Nachama did not have enough support to be reelected to the board, winning only eight of the 21 votes.

The member board, which consists entirely of Eastern European or Russian Jews, voted decisively for Brenner, who has promised to devote himself to new immigrants’ needs.

Brenner, 71, said he will work to help Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union learn about Jewish tradition, history and religion.

“If we want our children or grandchildren to stay Jewish, we have to introduce to them to these important values,” he said in a radio interview.

The Berlin Jewish community, Germany’s largest, has increased from about 6,000 to about 12,000 during the last 10 years with the arrival of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

With the influx of tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Germany’s Jewish community has grown from 35,000 to at least 90,000 in the last decade, making it the only growing Jewish population in Europe today.

Many of the new immigrants know little about Judaism, however, because all religious practice in the Soviet Union was discouraged under communism.

The Berlin election took place on May 2, when the Jewish community’s 21-member Council of Representatives chose a five-member board and three deputies. The new board then chose Brenner as president.

A shopkeeper’s son, Brenner was born in a Polish village near the Ukrainian border.

When he was 11, Brenner, his parents and sister were forced to resettle in Siberia. After World War II the family was sent back to Poland.

His parents and sister emigrated to Israel, but Brenner went to Berlin “for personal reasons,” and studied chemistry and physics.

He began his career as a research scientist with Germany’s Federal Institute of Health. He then entered the foreign service, working in the Research Ministry, as a diplomat in Moscow and Berlin and lastly as science attache of the German embassy in Israel.

Brenner speaks several languages fluently, including English, Russian, Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish.

Joel Levy, a longtime U.S. diplomat who served in the foreign service in Germany before becoming the founding chairman of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Berlin, called Brenner “a very accomplished diplomat who knows” Eastern Europe “extremely well and therefore will be a major force for the integration of Russian Jews in the Berlin Jewish community.”

Outgoing President Nachama, ordained last year as a liberal rabbi, said he probably would return to work as a historian with the Topography of Terror Foundation, an archive and memorial exhibit on the history of the Gestapo in Berlin.

The community elected Nachama president in 1997. During his tenure, the community gave its support to an egalitarian congregation and secured contracts for the city’s first two female cantors.

Brenner has said he wants to help the Berlin community play a larger bigger role in the Central Council of Jews in Germany. He also wants to emphasize the connection between the Berlin Jewish community and Israel.

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