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Reforming Europe the Fall — and Rise — of Reform in Germany

August 7, 2006
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They were as German as their non-Jewish neighbors. They loved Goethe and Mendelssohn. Their synagogues had organs like those in the best churches. “Yekkes” — German Jews, the originators of Reform Judaism — were, and are, proud of their heritage. Much of that heritage was lost in the Holocaust. For the most part, the few remnants of the “original” German-Jewish community were dispersed across the globe, and the brand of progressive Judaism their predecessors had created became virtually extinct in the land of its birth.

So who would imagine that Reform Judaism would one day return to Germany?

Well, it has — thanks to a momentous political decision in 2004 that was decades in the making.

Where there were no fully functioning Reform congregations 10 years ago, today there are 20. Of Germany’s 120,000 identifying Jews, some 4,000 attend Reform synagogues, according to a spokesperson for the 7-year-old Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, Germany’s progressive Jewish seminary.

Not only has the movement achieved new recognition in Germany; in September, its new seminary will be the first to ordain rabbis in Germany since 1942.

For Rabbi Walter Jacob of Pittsburgh, who fled Nazi Germany with his family, it is a dream come true.

Germany is “rebuilding a really solid Jewish life, and it is a pretty good beginning,” says Jacob, 76, president of Geiger College. “My ancestors for 16 generations were rabbis in Germany and Central Europe. I am glad that there will be new generations of rabbis.”

The new rabbis will be the beneficiaries of a recent decision by the Central Council of Jews in Germany — the secular body representing Jews here — to legitimize non-Orthodox Judaism by accepting virtually all Reform congregations as members.

Intended to be a unified political voice for all Jews in Germany, the council was established in 1950, a period when the handful of Jews who had survived World War II were establishing Orthodoxy as the national congregational norm, thus enabling any Jew to worship in the country’s few remaining synagogues.

Still, small groups of progressive-oriented Jews met informally, influenced in part by liberal British and American military chaplains who first attracted a following during the post-World War II occupation of Germany. The progressive groups eventually coalesced into fledgling congregations.

Pressure for change mounted as the Jewish population of Germany began to expand exponentially due to an influx of former Soviet Jews who arrived after German unification in 1990. Today, in fact, roughly 80 percent of Germany’s Jews have roots in the former Soviet Union.

As recently as 1997, however, the Central Council barely acknowledged the existence of the budding progressive congregations. But as these congregations grew and sought official recognition, the council’s leaders defended their exclusionary stance on the grounds that they were trying to preserve Jewish unity by ensuring that the community would continue to speak with one voice.

While some critics argued that the council’s real motive was to maintain control over the millions of dollars in government-administered funds funneled through their organization each year, others maintained that the Reform groups were driven by a desire to grab a slice of that same pie. A minority of Jewish leaders complained that the outsiders blatantly disregarded virtually all Jewish law and traditional customs, which Reform leaders steadfastly denied.

For example, former Munich Jewish community board member Ulrich Siegel wrote a sharply worded letter in 2001 to the lord mayor of Munich, arguing that Reform practices such as mixed-sex prayer and the employment of female rabbis “makes it impossible for a traditional community like ours to host the Liberal Community in our rooms.”

As it turns out, Siegel was writing at a time when there already were a handful of egalitarian congregations and one Conservative female rabbi — Bea Wyler — working under the Central Council umbrella.

Still, a series of battles ensued over whether Reform congregations should be accepted by the council, and thus qualify for state funding. The World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Jerusalem-based umbrella group, launched a media blitz, pointing out to both the American and German public the apparent inequity of the situation. Leaders of the American Reform movement met with the German ambassador in Washington and German consular officials elsewhere to plead their case and try to convince a reluctant German government to mediate the dispute.

Meanwhile, two German legal rulings changed the course of the Reform movement in that country, and perhaps throughout Europe.

First, in 2002, Germany’s Federal Administrative Court ruled that the term “Jewish community” — in other words, the Central Council of Jews — implies a diversity of Jewish movements rather than a denominational monolith.

Second, after a seven-year court battle, the Administrative Court of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt ruled in 2004 that the Reform congregation of the city of Halle was entitled to funding from a state-level Jewish governing body.

The conflict came to a head in 2004 after the World Union threatened to sue Germany for the alleged failure of the Central Council — the government’s contractual partner — to support all streams of Judaism. Last-minute negotiations, however, averted what could have been an ugly courtroom brawl and paved the way for resolution of the impasse.

Eventually, under the leadership of Paul Spiegel, then-head of the Central Council, who died earlier this year, the council opened its doors to World Union congregations in 2004 rather than risk further splintering the Jewish community into warring factions and seriously diffusing communal power.

“We Jews should speak with one voice, openly and politically,” says Dieter Graumann, newly elected vice president of the Central Council, and representative of the Jewish Community of Frankfurt. “And we in the Central Council have to understand that we can only have unity if we accept diversity.”

Although the Reform movement is no longer perceived as a threat to German Jewish unity, other sectarian controversies have arisen to fill the vacuum.

A case in point: In December, Genadi Man, an official with the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews and a member of the Jewish community of Cologne, told the newspaper Die Welt that the Central Council “must be Russified” or face competition from a parallel umbrella organization representing the needs of new immigrants.

Meanwhile, the World Union says its next task is to convince Germany’s state-based Jewish associations to kick in their fair share of funding for Reform congregations. The allocation is based on the number of members in local congregations, some of which have been accused of padding their membership rolls. Progressive leaders shrug off the charge.

Despite these and other challenges, the current state of affairs is a vast improvement over the situation that existed not long ago, according to Jacob, who is also rabbi emeritus of Congregation Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh. “Germany has changed radically and made a real effort to help this rebuilding — far more than any country that has persecuted us or killed us or expelled us,” he says. “So that augurs well for the future.”

Granted, Graumann of the Central Council concedes, it was easier for the German Jewish community to speak with one voice when there were only 30,000 Jews in the entire country, as there were just before reunification. Now there are at least four times that many. “We are happy that there are more of us,” he says. “These are healthy problems.”

JTA correspondent Dinah Spritzer in Prague contributed to this story.

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