Jewish life is growing in Germany, but what form will it take

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In October 2015, 23 Northern California rabbis from across the religious spectrum traveled to Poland and Germany to try to understand the claim that Jewish life there was undergoing a renewal. This was the third time that rabbis from the Greater Bay Area had mounted one of these interdenominational trips; it was our first trip together outside of Israel. I will focus my remarks here only on our experience in Germany.

One of our first meetings took place at the offices of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin. Deidre Berger, director of the Berlin office, welcomed us into AJC’s spacious conference room and offered us a thorough context-setting briefing. About half the rabbis on this trip had previously promised themselves that they would never visit either Poland or Germany because of what had transpired there during World War II. But because we were going as colleagues, and because we were trying to determine if a Jewish renaissance was really happening in either country, they were willing to give it a chance.

Berger’s remarks were interrupted at one point by a man who walked into the room and took a seat at the table. He was Sergey Lagodinsky, and his presence and presentation at our meeting changed the dynamic of our visit to Germany. Here was a young man of 40 who, in his short life, had earned several academic credentials from at least three different universities, had worked as a Russian-speaking attorney at the Berlin office of an American law firm and had also worked at the American Jewish Committee in Berlin. He had expertise in trans-Atlantic relations, global security and international law; had become deeply involved in German and German-Jewish politics; had appeared on numerous radio programs in Germany and elsewhere; and had also received awards and prizes for social work and academic excellence. And last, but not least, he was running for the chairmanship of the Jewish Community of Berlin.

For us rabbis, not yet familiar with the inner workings of the German Jewish community, it soon became obvious that a non-Orthodox Jew from the former Soviet Union who was running for the top leadership spot of the Berlin Jewish Community and who was barely able to mask his “disappointment” with its current leadership was exactly the kind of person we had wanted to meet. He represented a possible whole new direction for the Jewish community in Germany and, as such, was a most controversial figure. Here’s why:

At the end of World War II, the German Jewish community was nearly destroyed. Those Jews who still lived in Germany were not at all clear about what their future might be. Many, if not most, questioned whether there was any reason at all to remain in Germany. Few Jews were moving to Germany, so the likelihood of increasing the Jewish population of Germany was minimal at best. But then the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union began and it was not long before there were more Russian-speaking Jews in Germany than German-speaking Jews. Perhaps more to the point, the Russians came to Germany from the former USSR, where the practice of Judaism was frowned upon, if not forbidden outright.

In those days, Jewish expression in Germany tended to be almost exclusively Orthodox or traditional, and the Russians had very limited experience with Jewish practice. Yet, because they were now free to express themselves religiously, they wanted to be able to do so, but they were not all comfortable with limiting their expression or practice to Orthodoxy. So the stage was set for a confrontation between the old German Jews and the new Russian Jews. As the years have passed, and as Masorti (Conservative) and Reform Judaism have gained a foothold in Germany, Jews who have come to Germany now have more choices about how they will lead their Jewish lives. This has led to increasing friction between the leaders of “The Community” who tend to be Orthodox, and those who are more liberal or progressive.

What we learned from meeting others in Berlin was that there is a form of rebirth going on. What form it will eventually take, how sustainable it will be and whether it can survive the internal power struggles among native-born Germans, immigrant Russians and the new wave of (more than 18,000) Israelis who have “discovered” Berlin, we cannot predict. It seems there is real growth potential for Jewish life in Germany again. The questions are whose cultural and religious values it will reflect, and whether it will be possible for a pluralistic community to exist in what, until very recently, was a monolith. As rabbis who have a stake in encouraging the growth and health of Jewish life everywhere, we will be watching very closely, ready to assist if we can and to learn what we can as this process unfolds.

These are the questions for us, the Northern California rabbis who made this visit: Are there places in the Jewish communities of Berlin (and the rest of Germany) that could use our help? If so, what kind(s) of help would they want? Are they the kinds of help that we would be able or prepared to offer? While we have well-developed systems in place for nurturing Jewish communities and Jewish life in America, would these systems work well in other countries and cultures? Even if they did work, would they be appropriate for those situations? Or would everyone be better off trying to adapt our best practices to the already-existing systems in those places? In other words, just because something has worked in America, we cannot assume that it will translate directly into German Jewish life.

Another question: What have we learned from our visit that will help us serve our own communities better here in the Bay Area? Is there anything that we have learned from seeing Jewish communities reinvent themselves in Europe that we might apply to our own situation here? This, too, is worth exploring, and I know that the rabbis who went on this mission will be continuing to work with each other in the coming months to seek appropriate answers to these questions.

Rabbi Allen Bennett is former spiritual leader of Temple Israel in Alameda and has been spending his retirement doing volunteer work and traveling. He took part in a recent rabbinic mission to Germany and Poland sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Germany, the Taube Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Poland and other local sponsors.