The German army is set to employ its first rabbi since the Shoah to offer spiritual guidance to its growing numbers of Jewish soldiers.
Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said the decision was necessary because every soldier was entitled to “undisturbed religious practice and pastoral care”.
She made the announcement at a conference last week organised by the Central Council of Jews in Germany (ZdJ), where she said she is filled “with gratitude and with joy” that Jewish women and men serve in the armed forces.
Christian pastors have long offered a similar service in the German armed forces, known as the Bundeswehr. The country’s Ministry of Defence estimates there are about 300 Jews currently serving in the armed forces.
Similar arrangements will also be made for Muslim soldiers.
ZdJ president Josef Schuster told the JC that far-right antisemitism, which is growing in German society, was also present in the Bundeswehr, meaning that military rabbis needed not only to provide spiritual guidance to Jewish soldiers, but also to help acquaint all soldiers with Judaism.
The ZdA will sign an agreement with the German government to offer services until the end of 2019, after which time it will contact both Orthodox and liberal rabbinical training centres to find appropriate candidates.
“We have several good candidates,” Mr Schuster said, adding that the Bundeswehr of 2019 cannot be compared in any way with the Wehrmacht, Adolf Hitler’s army of 1933 to 1945.
Jewish soldiers themselves are not a recent addition to the Bundeswehr: Lieutenant Colonel Rainer Hoffmann, who chairs the Union of Jewish Soldiers in the armed forces, has served in uniform for 15 years from 1966.
As a soldier, he has never hidden the fact that he is Jewish and has never encountered antisemitism in the armed forces.
Compulsory military service existed in Germany until 2011, although children and grandchildren of Shoah survivors were not conscripted.
Mr Hoffmann, whose Jewish mother survived the Shoah, said his experience as a child of Soviet aggression in West Berlin has motivated him to volunteer to military service.
Other Jewish friends and acquaintances of his preferred to serve in Israel in the IDF.
As a secular Jew, Mr Hoffmann said he has never felt the need for spiritual guidance from a military rabbi, and neither do most members of the Union.
“However, it makes sense that if Jews serve in the armed forces a military rabbi should be appointed. Maybe this political decision was made in order to install a military imam,” he added.
The German Defence Ministry’s plans include expanding pastoral care for the approximately 3,000 Muslims in the armed forces.
If a military rabbi had to attend to Jewish soldiers then he would have to be constantly on the road, Mr Hoffmann said. “The most important thing is that the soldiers trust him.”
Just like his Christian counterparts, such a military rabbi would wear a uniform only on a military mission abroad.
Officially, German military rules state that religious symbols are not part of a uniform, but because Mr Hoffmann is a reserve soldier he was able to wear a kippah even though he attended the opening of the conference in uniform.
But flotilla surgeon Ilia Levikov, who serves in a military hospital in Hamburg, refuses the headwear.
He was presented with a military-style kippah by the rabbi installed with US forces in Afghanistan, where he served as part of the NATO mission Resolute Support.
The decision to install a German military rabbi is “not so wrong”, he said, although he lamented the fact the decision was taken without consulting the Union of Jewish Soldiers.
He said he felt more attached to a moderate Orthodox rabbi than to a liberal one and that he hoped the new appointment would be a visible presence so that non-Jewish soldiers regard a military rabbi as normal.