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Ten Years After the Wall: Diversity Among German Jews Shows How Far Community Has Come

October 13, 1999
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The opening of a new school for Jewish teachers in eastern Berlin is being hailed as a sign of the variety and maturity of post- Holocaust Jewish life in Germany.

The Lauder Judisches Lehrhaus, which aims to train a new generation of Jewish educators for a community sorely in need of them, is one of a few new developments meant to meet the needs of a growing and increasingly diverse Jewish population.

“This is a symbol of the profound resilience of the Jewish people,” said American businessman and philanthropist Ronald Lauder to a gathering of several hundred Jewish leaders and local politicians in Berlin’s ornate Rykerstrasse Synagogue, which survived the Holocaust. “The flickering flame is once again being fanned into life,” he said.

The school is one of several Jewish institutions that have opened recently. These institutions reflect not only the phenomenal growth of Jewish life here, but also the fact that Germany’s Jews feel freer to express their religious differences after decades of presenting a self-protective facade of unity.

As council member Michel Friedman has often said, children of Holocaust survivors, like himself, are no longer sitting on packed suitcases, ready to leave at the slightest sign of danger.

Options are growing for liberal or Reform Jews, and in the 20-something generation, a tiny but growing number are seeking religious roots, trying to keep kosher and even wearing their tallit fringes in public.

Such sights haven’t been seen much around here since before the war. “I had to go to New York to see what my grandparents probably experienced in Germany,” said Joachim Gauck, a Protestant theologian and former East German dissident, at the dedication.

Other recent Jewish developments in Germany include the opening this summer of two new Jewish courts, one Orthodox and one non-Orthodox; recently, a new Reform-style congregation started meeting in Berlin; and a liberal rabbinical school is scheduled to be dedicated later this month in nearby Potsdam. The Lauder school, which has been operating in temporary headquarters for about a year, is of a more traditional bent.

As in every pluralistic society, the institutions’ ideological differences create problems. Germany’s two Jewish courts disagree on essential questions of conversion, divorce and burial. But both are supported by the official community.

Such challenges may chafe, but when is any good-sized Jewish community monolithic?

“At least I am happy there is diversity in Germany,” noted Israel’s outgoing ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, at the 1997 conference of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, held for the first time in Germany. “In Israel, those who don’t wish to remain loyal to Orthodox leave religion altogether,” he said, in a typically fearless challenge to his own government.

The new Lauder school is intended to address one of the most serious practical problems of the growing community — a lack of teachers and rabbis.

Lauder pointed to a related problem — Germany’s new Jewish communities are too spread out.

Because of Germany’s settlement policy, tens of thousands of ex-Soviet Jews have been placed in some 80 communities nationwide, where they must stay until they become German citizens, if they want to receive state financial support. “I have to thank the German government for giving them the chance to come here,” said Lauder. But the policy of separating them is not helpful. “We must have fewer communities and better schools and synagogues,” he said.

On Sunday, Lauder affixed a mezuzah to the entrance of the school building, with help from the school’s dean, Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski, and Andreas Nachama, the leader of Berlin’s Jewish community. Guests then filed into the newly renovated school, with its sparkling white hallways, brand new meeting rooms, offices and kitchens, and gleaming mezuzahs over the doorways.

Only a few months ago, these halls were dusty and moldy and filled with the discarded furniture from the years the building was used as an East German social welfare office.

Lauder’s 12-year-old eponymous foundation, which has created or supported dozens of Jewish institutions across Central and Eastern Europe, from schools and kindergartens for some 7,500 children to community centers and summer camps, also dedicated Jewish schools in Vienna and in Warsaw this week.

Germany’s official Jewish population has nearly tripled to more than 75,000 in the past decade, thanks to the arrival of tens of thousands of ex-Soviet Jews.

“Who could have believed in 1945 that the Jewish community in Germany would become the fastest growing in the entire world? For me, it is a miracle,” said Paul Spiegel, member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Spiegel hailed the new Lauder school as “a gift to future generations” during Sunday’s dedication ceremonies, which included speeches by Nachama, Gauck and Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen, who was re-elected by a wide margin later that day.

The school has been operating for about a year in temporary quarters, under the leadership of Rozwaski, who came to Berlin last year from New York. Already, several students have been commuting to the school from across the country. The school will eventually include a teacher resource center, an adult education institute and an intensive study program.

Since this spring, workers have been renovating the school building, which was returned to the Berlin Jewish community in 1998.

The Jewish community made the property available rent-free to the Lehrhaus for 20 years and has contributed to the cost of repairing the building, though the bulk of the cost has been assumed by the Lauder foundation.

Already, the new school in Berlin seems destined to become a magnet for younger Jews, born in the former Soviet Union, who are rediscovering their Jewish roots.

Two young men from Leipzig on Monday confessed their dreams of attending the school in a year or two. Igor Radbil, 15, and Genady Shandalov, 19, met through the Lauder Am Echad youth program in their city. Now both young men wear yarmulkas in the street and try to keep kosher at home. They came to the opening day ceremony along with dozens of Jewish youth from around Germany.

Their experiences may symbolize the challenges and rewards ahead. “My parents don’t like it that I don’t put on the lights on the Sabbath,” said Radbil, who wears his tzizit visibly despite the fact that Leipzig has a serious problem with far-right extremists.

Levy, the Lauder foundation’s Germany chairman, cares like a parent for all the young people who pass through the foundation doors. He’s inspired by such convictions but agrees with Josh Spinner, one of two young rabbis recently hired as educators. “Josh advised Igor to wear a baseball cap and not a kipah on the streets of Leipzig,” Levy said.

“It’s very good to wear the kipah, but God forbid that something should happen to you.”

Recently, it has been Jewish tombstones that have been victimized.

More than 100 graves were desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in Berlin last week and before the discovery over the weekend of a similar incident at a Jewish cemetery in southern Germany.

“It is not that Germany is paradise on earth for Jews,” said Speigel. “All in all, I believe that Jews have confidence in Germany. But we must watch out.”

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