Rabbis ordination in Germany a sign of big changes

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For four men in Germany, this Jewish New Year has been like no other. It is their first year as ordained rabbis, working to help build Jewish life in the country that nearly succeeded in wiping out European Jewry.

In ceremonies held Sept. 13 at the Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne, Daniel Fabian, Jonathan Konits, Reuven Konnik and Naftoly Surovtsev — graduates of the traditional Orthodox Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin — were ordained. In all, eight graduates of the 3-year-old seminary have now received their ordination, or smicha, including two in 2009 in Munich and two in 2010 in Leipzig.

American Jonathan Konits (right) receives his rabbinic ordination from Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 13. photo/jta-uri strauss

The event, which drew religious and political leaders and much media attention, highlighted contrasts in life for Jews in Germany today. While new rabbis are being educated to serve a growing Jewish population, the nation has seen a rise in attacks on Jewish life and on Jews, exemplified by the ongoing legal assault on the Jewish and Muslim tradition of circumcision and the recent brutal anti-Semitic beating of a rabbi in Berlin.

Speakers at the ceremony said Jews should be able to live and practice their traditions in Germany, and ordaining new rabbis is a sign of confidence.

“To all those who now question Jewish life in Germany, I say this: Jewish life here is safe and must be safeguarded,” said Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which co-hosted the ceremony with the Rabbinerseminar.

The media attention focused on the ordination is important especially now, “when our tradition is under attack,” said Rabbi Josh Spinner, executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and founding director of the Lauder Yeshurun, the collection of Jewish educational programs in Berlin under the Lauder Foundation umbrella.

And “it is a celebration of the future leadership of the Jewish communities of Germany,” he added. “These four guys mirror the Jewish demographic: All four live in Germany and got married in Germany. Two are from the former Soviet Union, one is American, one was born in Israel but raised in Germany.”

This is “real, home-grown, organic Jewish life,” Spinner said.

For the four new rabbis, traditional Jewish life in Germany is not only possible but something they take for granted.

“If you are in the middle of it, you don’t think about it,” said Fabian, 38. “Sometimes when I go to Switzerland people tell me it’s so amazing that Jews are living in Germany again. And then I think to myself, ‘Yeah, you are actually right.’ ”

Yet for the Israel-born Fabian, attending yeshiva, raising a Jewish family with his wife, Daniella, shopping for kosher food and meeting with fellow students “is just my everyday life,” he said. He will continue in his role as director of the Lauder Midrasha, the Berlin-based school for women.

Konits, 30, has taken a position in Frankfurt with Jewish Experience, a new program for young Jewish professionals. The Swarthmore College graduate came to Germany from Baltimore on a Fulbright grant a few years ago. He connected with the Rabbinerseminar and stayed.

Konits’ parents initially were hesitant about his decision to remain in Germany, “but those thoughts were taken away entirely when I got married and when their grandchildren came along,” he said.

As for Jewish life in his adopted home, he is optimistic. “You would never believe how many secular Jews are just dying to get in” to the Lauder kindergarten and primary school, he said.

The demand reflects the tremendous growth of the Jewish population in Germany since 1990. Some 200,000 people with Jewish backgrounds arrived in the past two decades from the former Soviet Union, pushing the number in Germany to about 240,000. (Some 105,000 of those with Jewish backgrounds are officially registered as Jewish, according to the Central Council of Jews in Germany.)

The Rabbinerseminar chose to hold its third ordination in Cologne, where the seminary has close ties. One of the new rabbis — the Belarus-born Surovtsev — will remain in Cologne for the next year.

Prior to the influx of former Soviet Jews, about 1,300 Jews lived in Cologne and there weren’t enough youngsters to establish a school, said Ebi Lehrer, head of the board of the Cologne Jewish Community. Now the Jewish community exceeds 4,000, and there is a prekindergarten, kindergarten, primary school and youth center.

Surovtsev, 25, started studying at the Lauder yeshiva immediately after his family moved to Germany six years ago and eventually transitioned to rabbinical studies.

His family is proud, “especially my grandmother; her grandfather was also a rabbi,” Surovtsev said.

For him, the biggest challenge is not combating anti-Semitism or defending religious freedoms, but rather encouraging pride in Jewish identity.

“I am trying to answer this challenge with my own example,” Surovtsev said, “and hoping that my work as rabbi will show to the people that to be a Jew is a very unique and wonderful thing.”

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.