Keep new German Jews Jewish

A substantial Jewish community has emerged in Europe and it is being allowed to wither away.

By Anshel Pfeffer, November 13, 2008

The opening of the restored Rykestrasse Synagogue last September was a grand affair. The choral choir of Berlin State Radio sang chazanut to a thousand visitors, addressed by senators and cabinet ministers extolling the 3 million-euro restoration of the East Berlin synagogue, which was not burnt on November 9 1938 - Kristallnacht -but fell into disuse and neglect over the long Communist years. The last speaker was the shul's elderly president who had kept a tiny light burning in a small back room over the years. Now he looked beyond the front rows of dignitaries, and changed language. "This is also your home," he said in Russian, "you will be the ones to keep Rykestrasse alive."

He was under no illusions. The children and grandchildren of Rykestrasse's original congregants were long gone. To keep the synagogue functioning after the festive crowd went home, he would have to rely on Berlin's new Jews.

Last Sunday, Rykestrasse was full again with another impressive guest list. Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke from the pulpit, denounced antisemitism, reminding Germans of the furies unleashed 70 years ago and hailing the rebuilding of German Jewry, evident in the magnificent building.

There is no shortage of government funding for rebuilding synagogues and erecting elaborate museums and monuments. Germany does not lack for Jewish community buildings; it lacks Jews. Or does it? In numbers at least, Germany for the past two decades has been the fastest-growing Jewish community in Europe. For many, though, this growth is an embarrassment and to a large degree remains hidden beneath the surface.

Of the two million Jews who left the former Soviet Union (FSU) since the iron curtain was lifted, only half emigrated to Israel. A million preferred to make their fortunes in North America. There was a third option. More than 200,000 took advantage of the fast-track citizenship and a range of benefits offered by a guilt-ridden Germany to Jewish immigrants.

Successive German governments after the war pledged to rebuild Jewish life in the cradle of Nazism but there were not many takers and the community never exceeded 30,000. And then the Russians came. For the Germans, it was a golden opportunity to showcase their new tolerant image.

For many Jews, on the other hand - especially Israelis - it was a crushing humiliation. It was bad enough that, after decades of campaigning to liberate Soviet Jews, half of them did not want to make aliyah, but going to Germany was sheer betrayal.

Neither was the local German Jewish establishment excited by the new arrivals. The local leadership enjoys special privileges courtesy of the government and they did not take kindly to potential usurpers. Like their great-grandfathers a century earlier, they looked down upon the influx of Ostjuden. Today there are 107,000 registered members of the Jewish community in Germany, 90 per cent of them from the FSU. Yet the tiny minority of German-born members still occupy almost all leadership positions.

It was not difficult to marginalise the newcomers. Arriving without experience of any form of Jewish life and no communal framework, they were shunted by the German authorities to 80 or more different cities, in the unfounded hope that they would rejuvenate the defunct communities there. Accelerated assimilation followed, especially among the younger generation who eagerly want to become part of German life. Older Jews registered with the community for the side-benefits of old-age care and free burial. Very few have participated in any kind of Jewish activity. Another obstacle they face is the fact that many of them are not halachically Jewish and the community membership rules in Germany are unbendable.

In less than 20 years, the number of Jews in Germany has grown tenfold; on paper it is now the third largest Jewish community in Western Europe, not that much smaller than its British counterpart. But, if current trends continue, in another 20 years the German-Jewish population will be back to its Cold War level - 20,000 Jews on the brink of total assimilation. Yet very little appears to be happening to address this.

The Jewish world is capable of marshalling incredible resources to rescue 20 members of the tribe from war-torn South Ossetia. Millions of dollars have been spent on bringing 25,000 members of the Falashmura from Ethiopia to Israel, despite their dubious connection to Judaism. But the 200,000 Russian-speaking Jews in Germany seem to have slipped beneath the radar.

Some efforts are being made. The Jewish Agency has a tiny representation; Lubavitch opened a smart new centre in Berlin last year; and the Ronald Lauder Foundation operates half-a-dozen schools and academies, but these are just pin-pricks.

Some Jewish philanthropists view any sizeable Jewish presence in Germany as an abomination and refuse on principle to support any activity. Yet many Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians are only too happy to enjoy German hospitality. Their inaction on this issue is inexcusable.

Last updated: 11:19am, November 13 2008