From Germany to Jewry: Convert examines heritage

Anne Frank called her diary Kitty. As a child in Dusseldorf in the 1960s, Charlotte Fonrobert called her journal Miep, named for the woman who helped hide the Frank family during the Holocaust.

"I always identified with the victims of the Shoah," Fonrobert said.

So much so that in May she underwent an Orthodox conversion with Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

Now an assistant professor of Talmud at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, Fonrobert will share the story of her journey from "unprocessed mourning" to observant Judaism at a May 4 Yom HaShoah commemoration at Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.

Growing up in post-World War II Germany, Fonrobert learned in school and at home about the Holocaust and the rise of fascism. The tone was purely political and historical.

"We dealt with questions like why the Weimar Republic disintegrated and what were the conditions that made Nazi rule possible," Fonrobert said. "What did not happen was a discussion of how we felt about this or what it brought up for us to inherit this horrible history.

"It was just thrown at us. There was no processing."

Throughout her adolescence, Fonrobert had no contact with Jews. "In crude terms, the only Jews I knew were dead Jews," she said.

In the early 1980s, Fonrobert left Dusseldorf to study at Kirchliche Hochschule, a Protestant seminary in Berlin. She carried her belongings and "a fundamental unprocessed mourning and sadness about what had happened in terms of the murder of the Jews."

Studying theology with plans to become a minister, Fonrobert met Rabbi Joseph Asher. The late spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco taught classes in Judaism and the Oral Torah at Kirchliche Hochschule.

Fonrobert and Asher forged a friendship, spending hours talking about the Holocaust, identity, Germany and Israel.

Meanwhile, Fonrobert learned biblical Hebrew, a prerequisite at the seminary. In addition, during conversations with her grandmother, she discovered how deeply anti-Semitic stereotypes were ingrained in the German psyche.

Her break from Christianity followed quickly.

"I loved biblical Hebrew from the beginning. Then I started taking courses in Talmud and rabbinic literature. I thought I wanted to go to Israel. Rabbi Asher convinced me to come to Berkeley, to the Graduate Theological Union's Center for Jewish Studies instead," Fonrobert said.

Arriving in the Bay Area in 1987, Fonrobert wanted to convert "right then and there." However, "I didn't for a few years. On a rational level I knew this was very complicated for me as a German. There were unaccounted-for psychological processes at work.

"Also, I wasn't sure whether I could really believe in Judaism as an ethnic community that provided for converts."

After eight years "of being totally involved in Jewish academia and the Jewish community," and a year spent studying in Israel, Fonrobert decided to "make the step, the commitment, and convert.

"Everybody said, `This is your world.' And I knew: This is who I am — a Jew."

Now teaching rabbinical students, Fonrobert feels that "for the first time, I can say this is my home, my work, my community."

The story of how she came to terms with her German heritage is dramatic. She insists many Germans of her generation are similarly involved in Judaism. A number of Germans also study secular subjects and complete related internships in Israel.

While Yom HaShoah provides Jews with an opportunity to mourn their losses, Germans have yet to find a similar "public process of mourning.

"The question for me is: What would public tshuvah [repentance] be? It doesn't just mean reparation payments through the Israeli government. That's a material sort of reparation," Fonrobert said.