Rabbis ordained for first time in 70 years

By Toby Axelrod, Berlin, June 3, 2009

For the first time in seven decades, two Orthodox rabbis were ordained in Germany.

The ceremony, which was broadcast live on television, is seen as further evidence of the return of Jewish life to Germany – and in particular, of Orthodoxy, which has revived at a far slower pace than the other denominations.

The new rabbis, Zsolt Balla, 30, and Avraham Radbill, 25, were both born behind the former "Iron Curtain" and emigrated to Germany as part of the post-unification influx of former Soviet Jews. Both were introduced to Jewish studies through Lauder foundation programs.

Radbill will take up a position in Cologne . Balla will lead outreach programs for the Lauder Yeshurun in Berlin and work as a "weekend rabbi" in Leipzig . He was unaware that he was Jewish until he was nine-years-old, but his mother told him the truth after he asked about attending a Christian Bible school in his native Budapest .

“She said, we might find you a better place to go,” Balla joked.

Despite developments in all areas of German Jewish life, there is still a tremendous dearth of rabbis, with 50 pulpit rabbis serving about 100 communities. The majority of Orthodox rabbis are Israeli-born and educated.

The local Orthodox rabbinical school currently has nine students. Later this month, the Reform movement will ordain its second batch of rabbis.

Chabad Lubavitch in Berlin also recently started ordaining visiting rabbinical students, some of whom have settled in German-speaking countries, while others have moved as far as Vietnam and Estonia .

What distinguishes the new Orthodox Rabbinersminar zu Berlin , which ordained Balla and Radbill, aside from its traditional orientation, is that virtually all its students come from Germany or the former Communist states. Berlin also has a school for Jewish women, and a growing community of young traditional Jewish families – partly developing through introductions between the two seminaries - which naturally has led to the creation of new kindergartens and Jewish schools. It is no longer uncommon to see young men in black hats and wearing traditional fringes in some parts of town, or to see young women with their heads covered, pushing strollers.

“Ten years ago, no one could have dreamed of such visions as we see today in this yeshivah,” Balla said.

Last updated: 4:12pm, June 3 2009