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Jewish Berlin: Myths and Fragmentation


No single voice describes a minority community.  This is particularly applicable to Germany’s current Jewish community, whose fledging post-World War II numbers were greatly augmented by the influx of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the 1970’s and again in the 1990’s. While this paper initially intended to explore the Russian Jewish experience in Berlin as a paradigm of the Russian Jewish experience in Germany, our interviews revealed that Berlin Jewish identities could not be adequately understood within the framework of a simple Russian/non-Russian dichotomy. Instead, drawing from a variety of personal histories and opinions, this paper is intended to provide a glimpse of the challenges faced by those vested in building a Jewish future in Berlin, and by extrapolation, in Germany today.

Historical Background

The three major religious movements in Judaism are Orthodox Judaism, Conservative (Masorti) Judaism, and Reform/Liberal/Progressive Judaism. As recently as 200 years ago, Orthodox Judaism, which adheres to the traditions and rules practiced for thousands of years, was the only form of religious Judaism. The Chabad (Lubavitch) movement is a Hasidic subset of Orthodox Judaism that focuses on spirituality in addition to scripture; unlike other forms of Judaism, it is actively involved in outreach. Today, two other Jewish movements are recognized in some parts of the world, particularly in the United States. The Conservative movement, formally organized in the United States in 1913, believes that the traditional laws may be altered to accommodate changing times. The Reform/Liberal/Progressive movement, which originated in 19th century Germany, accepts that individuals can pick and choose the laws, traditions, and customs they wish to follow. 

Following this brief introduction, it would be difficult to begin a discussion of German Jewry without mention of the Holocaust. The destruction of the nation's Jewish population, which fell from an estimated pre-war population of 500,000 - 600,000 to a meager 15,000 after the war, extinguished Berlin's thriving liberal Jewish community  (Many pre-war German Jews distinguished themselves from the more observant orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe.). Since then, several Jewish movements, including Chabad, Masorti, Liberal, and Orthodox have sought to fill this vacuum in post-war Germany. 

Following the Second World War, most German Jews who survived the Holocaust emigrated to the United States or Israel. Only 15,000 remained on German soil. However, approximately 200,000, largely Polish or other Eastern European Jewish, displaced persons re-settled in Western Germany. Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, spiritual leader of the liberal Oranienburger Straße Synagogue explained, “Although many of these men married non-Jewish Germans, they constructed a kind of Orthodox shtetl Jewish practice they had grown up with before the war, even though most did not subscribe to Orthodox tenets themselves.” Although these Jews were clearly Eastern European immigrants during the late 1940's and 50's, today this group largely identifies as German Jews, says Andrea Michail, a psychiatrist and member of the Berlin Community.2 By 1950, these two disparate groups united to form the Central Council of Jews in Germany. This newly forged identification was undoubtedly bolstered by subsequent waves of Jewish immigrants from the FSU who were clearly different and by a long-standing antagonism between established Jews in Germany and those who migrated from Eastern Europe.   

Jewish Immigration from the former Soviet Union

In terms of numbers alone, Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union have had a tremendous impact on Jewish life in post-war Germany. The first wave occurred during the 1970's, when the Soviets demonstrated international goodwill by issuing Austrian visas to Russian Jews with the expectation that most of them would go on to Israel.  However, many opted to relocate to Germany instead, where they were welcomed by the then West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.  Forty years later, this population, like the displaced persons following the War, is widely considered to be well integrated into German society.

A decade or so later, under the strong influence of Perestroika, Dr. Irene Runge, then member of the Jüdischer Kulturverein (Jewish Cultural Associaton) in East Berlin, and her colleagues advocated for Jews of the FSU be allowed into East Germany. Although the East German government hoped to include provisions for these Jewish immigrants in the 1990 Einheitsvertrag (Unity Treaty) West Germany declined. However, the Contingency Refugee Law (Kontingentflüchtlingsgesetz) of January 1991 allowed unlimited numbers of Jews to settle in Germany; an estimated 220,000 Jews from the FSU did so. 

Most of these immigrants were forced to leave virtually all of their belongings behind. Anna Sokhrina, a journalist and author who immigrated to Germany from St. Petersburg in 1994, recalls arriving in Cologne with only two suitcases. Some, like Eleonora Shakhnikova, director of the integration office Integrathek in Berlin, were driven out by increasingly violent acts of anti-Semitism.4 Between 1990 and 1995 alone, Berlin's Jewish community doubled in size from 6,000 to 12,000.5 The sheer numbers and needs of particular members of this population of Jews from the FSU posed far greater challenges than their predecessors. They needed social services, language classes, assistance finding homes and employment.  Many adult FSU Jews were highly trained and accomplished in professional fields; however, because their degrees and experience were not officially recognized in Germany, finding comparable work was uncommon. For many, their only employment opportunities were in Jewish, Russian speaking organizations. When asked by her friends what her new job was, Sokhrina wryly replied that she was “employed as a Jew.”  Many former FSU immigrants continue to work for the Russian Jewish community.  Shakhnikova, director of the Integrathek, an office for integration that offers a broad variety of social services as well as cultural events and language classes, never returned to teaching Russian literature again.   FSU Jews over sixty-five, who comprised four out of ten of these immigrants, were particularly challenged by life in their new homeland; adapting to German social norms and learning German proved to be extremely difficult for them. 

More recently the numbers of Jewish immigrants to Germany has decreased. Apart from better overall living conditions in the FSU and the fact that vast numbers of Jews have already left their homes, a change in German law is likely to have slowed down immigration. Since 2005 Jewish immigration falls under the Aufenthaltsgesetz (Residence Law), the general law that governs immigration to Germany and no longer under a specific law with fewer requirements for immigration. The law now requires mandatory knowledge of the German language for all family members seeking to come to Germany, provision of a personal sponsor in Germany, and proven intention to become an active member of the Jewish community. While the vast majority of Jews in Berlin remain Russian-speaking, these new policies may contribute to the current influx of Jews from Israel, the United States, Argentina and Brazil, as well as Jews with Polish roots and Jewish artists and musicians from across Europe who may be better able to meet these requirements. 

Disappointment or Disillusionment 

While vast numbers of Jewish immigrants from the FSU had the potential to revitalize Jewish life in Germany, Rabbi Rothschild, a Berlin-based Liberal Rabbi explains that “they did not come to Germany to rebuild German Judaism.”  In fact, from a religious perspective, the German Jews and the FSU Jews had little in common and each was disappointed in the other. 

For their part, Russian Jews were allowed to enter Germany because the German government saw them as Jews. Further, they envisioned Germany as a place where they could freely be Jews. Sokhrina, for example, says that she has felt more Jewish in Germany than she ever did in the Soviet Union. In Germany, for the first time, she could enter a synagogue without fear.11 Despite this identity as Jews, many Jewish immigrants did not receive the welcome they anticipated from the German Jewish community, primarily for two reasons. First, the German state's definition of Judaism differed from that of the Jewish community in Berlin and elsewhere.  According to traditional Jewish law, only children of Jewish mothers are considered Jewish.  Ironically, as Michele Piccirillo, a staff member at the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, explains, “they were invited because they were Jewish and then rejected by Jews for not being Jewish.”  Second, the immigrants’ connection to Judaism was understood in terms of nationality and citizenship rather than knowledge or practice. Indeed, Sokhrina describes how her FSU passport read nazionalnost: jevrezkij, ‘nationality: Jewish.’  “We all identified ourselves as Jews, but in an ethnic rather than a religious way.”  Similarly, “People understand themselves as Jews because they were born as Jews, without any connection to the religion traditions,” explains Ilya Levin, a law student at Humboldt University, Berlin, who came to Germany with his parents in 2002.
The Berlin Jewish Community was equally disappointed.  It expected that immigrants would quickly enlarge their numbers, follow Jewish traditions, and become engaged members of the existing Community.15 However, because many immigrants’ only association with Judaism was their nationality, most knew little about Jewish religious customs. As a result, these newcomers could not easily integrate themselves into the religious life of the community (even if some were eager to discover those aspects of their Jewish identity).   

Moreover, the arrival of the FSU Jews altered the demographic reality and made the established German Jews a numeric minority within their own community.  Within just ten years, between 80 and 90 percent of the Jews in Germany were Russian speaking. However, the leadership remains heavily dominated by non-Russian speaking, generally more religiously observant German Jews.  “The classical Jews,” Levin complains, “are not ready to give up leadership positions or money.”  Shakhnikova adds that many of the immigrants who arrived here in the 1990’s conceive the Berlin Community as a class-system in which they form the lower class, lacking the financial means and language skills to step up. So they have no desire to join the established communities.  

These conflicting views demonstrate the current conflicts within the Jewish community over Jewish identity in Germany. They also demonstrate the resistance to change among the present German-speaking community leaders, as well as what might be described as the German government’s well-intentioned naiveté. As Piccirillo from the American Jewish Committee speculates, the government hoped that the influx of the Jews from the FSU would stand “as a wonderful symbol of 21st century German and Jewish symbiosis.”  Given the diversity and varied goals of the Jewish community, such a symbiosis has yet to develop. 

The Einheitsgemeinde – The Unified Community

Recent Jewish immigration to Germany, and the FSU Jewish immigration in particular, have complicated the Prussian historical tradition of Einheitsgemeinde, best translated as “unified community.” This enabled government officials to streamline their contact with established religious groups.  Because the government presumed that one organization, the Einheitsgemeinde, could represent all its members, state officials were not obligated to consult a wide variety of leadership within each religion. Thus, Piccirillo says, “One community under one roof had been the ideal in Berlin for 100 years.”  

This system still operates today. For Liberal Rabbi Walter Rothschild, the Einheitsgemeinde is akin to a quasi-governmental organization, which functions as a federal state. The Central Council of Jews in Germany, a corporation under public law, sits at the top of this Einheitsgemeinde structure, acting as an umbrella organization that receives tax money from constituents as well as the state, and allocates money for community institutions like synagogues, youth clubs, cemeteries, schools, and homes for the elderly.  Apart from representing the Jewish community and supporting the Zentrale Wohlfahrtsstelle (Central Welfare Agency), the Central Council's primary responsibility is to administer funds received from the German state to the twenty-three regional associations and affiliated organizations that make up the “states” of the Einheitsgemeinde. The Berlin Jewish Community is a “state” in this sense, receiving funds from the Central Council and the Berlin state government.

Ideally, membership at any Jewish congregation would also make one a member of the Einheitsgemeinde. However, of the estimated 120,000 Jews in Berlin, a mere 12,000 are card-carrying members of the Einheitsgemeinde, the official Berlin Jewish Community recognized by the Central Council.25 Instead, large numbers of Jews subscribe to informal congregations and clubs, like Irene Runge's Jüdischer Kulturverein, Jewish Cultural Association, that are outside the realm of the established Community. Similarly, the Israeli club boasts an email list of 1,200.  Whether it is an issue of paying membership fees, feeling unwelcomed, or a lack of programming for young people, as Michail, Runge and Fuhrmann respectively suggested, much of contemporary Jewish life in Berlin is not organized under the Central Council. Indeed, although Piccirillo is an active member of Jung und Jüdisch, (Young and Jewish, an organization for young Jewish life in Germany), she says about her friends that, “no one I know is a member of the [Einheitsgemeinde]. They are embarrassed by it.” 

Rabbi Rothschild, a self declared pluralist who believes that all Jewish practice should be equally supported, complains that the Einheitsgemeinde is dominated by Orthodox beliefs and that, as a consequence, large portions of government money are directed to support Orthodox initiatives. He is critical of the Central Council for its failure to be fair and transparent, but openly admits that he has difficulty approaching the situation objectively given his work on behalf of the Union der Progressiven Juden in Deutschland, the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany. Not yet formally recognized by the Central Council, he has been “fighting for a share of the cake for years.”  Runge, Levin, and  Rothschild criticized the Central Council's failure to distribute its funds fairly and account for its use.  “Perhaps,” Runge muses, “if the Central Council received more funds, they would be forced to reach out to the thousands of non-affiliated Jews.” 

Both Runge and Rothschild lament the lack of public debate within the Jewish community about the Einsheitsgemeinde, particularly its power, its hierarchy, and its true capacity to represent the entire Jewish community.  It's embarrassing, but it needs to be out there, Rothschild says. Similarly, Runde shares some of Rothschild's criticism: “While it might have been easier for the German authorities to deal with Jewish life in Germany through this institution, this is what the Kaiser wanted in the 19th century. It’s the 21st century now. Shouldn’t we rethink that?”  Likewise, Fuhrmann suggests that although the Zentralrat has hoped to speak as a single voice on behalf of all the Jews in Germany, it is an unrealistic expectation. 

Michail also perceives the organizational structure of the Einheitsgemeinde to be one of the community's greatest challenges; she worries that its collapse might endanger funding and resources for smaller congregations. At the same time, she acknowledges that the leadership structure, which requires people from differing Jewish backgrounds to work together, has engendered nasty squabbles and court cases.  In contrast, Ederberg sees the Zentralrat's difficulties as more ideological than structural: “As an institution,” she says, “the Central Council funds what programs exist and they are uninterested in new ideas.”  Still, she notes that smaller branches in other religions face similar challenges.  Yet despite the Einheitsgemeinde’s structural shortcomings, even those who are not necessarily included within it see no reason to abolish it altogether. For example, Shakhnikova hopes that the next generation of Jews that is born or raised in Germany will be a truly integrated part of German society so that they can help to create a true Einheitsgemeinde.  

Is Integration Possible? 

Not surprisingly, this crisis of identity has led to tensions within the Jewish community along German verses non-German/Russian lines. Sigmount Königsberg, office manager for the Assembly of Representatives of the Jewish Community at Berlin, asserts that “there is no Russian Jewish Community, only one Jewish community.”  In contrast, Levin, a Russian immigrant, explains, “there is not a Jewish community; rather, there are two Jewish communities, those who consider themselves from here, and those who have moved here from elsewhere.”  

Clearly, there is antagonism on both sides. The Russian Jewish population tends to be poorer than their German Jewish counterparts.  Levin comments, “I don't particularly want to deal with people wearing 500 Euro suits in synagogue.”  On the other hand, Fuhrmann describes how she recently told a fellow Cologne synagogue member that she did not speak Russian and he responded by saying, “well, you would not want to.”  Yet, Levin is quick to note, “it isn't that I dislike all German Jews and, in fact, some of them are my friends; but at the end of the day, I would rather relax with people who share my roots, and think the same way as I do.”  Levin also speculates that these differences are greater among his parents’ generation than his own. Both he and Königsberg are hopeful that some community unity will emerge as younger immigrants find their way in German society and become better versed in Jewish traditions. However, Levin also raises a cultural issue that German Jews may be less sensitive to:   “I expect that in sixty years, my kids will have a German mentality,” he says, “but I want my kids to know where they come from and maintain those Russian traditions.”   Runge, a formerly Eastern German Jew, echoes this concern, observing that “the German way of not understanding other cultures” made its way into the Jewish German and Polish community.  Despite these challenges, Levin's success as a law student and his adoption of traditions with which his parents were unfamiliar suggest that movement towards a more unified Jewish community is possible.  Shakhnikova also hopes that in twenty years the work of her integration office will no longer be needed.  

Public Perception

The Jewish Community's continuing commitment to the Einheitsgemeinde poses problems in public perception as well.  Runge notes, with frustration, that the German government only recognizes Jews as such when he/she belongs to a Gemeinde recognized by the Central Council. “Why should Stefan Kramer speak for me?” she asks rhetorically.  The notion of an Einheitsgemeinde also contributes to what Piccirillo calls a “simplistic way of looking at Judaism.” It can be about religion, culture, heritage, and ethnic identity or any combination thereof, a notion not widely understood by the population at large. The indisputable Jewish connection to the Holocaust also shapes the public's understanding of the contemporary Jewish community. Each January, around the Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz, Runge receives many requests from educators to send a Jewish person to address students about the Holocaust. Her response is usually to ask the teachers to ask their grandparents, a reply that is usually not well received.  Thus, she concludes that the vast majority of the German population views Jews as victims or people with whom to do reconciliation work; they ''just don't know what to do” with living Jews. Perhaps the Jewish Community's insistence on presenting a public image of a homogenous Jewish community also serves to limit the wider German public's recognition of Jewish plurality. 

Reaching Out and Related Challenges

Another challenge to Jewish Berlin is the rivalry among Jewish movements to secure followers. Currently, the Chabad and Orthodox movements are blossoming, especially among the FSU Jews, while the Conservative/Masort and Reform/Liberal movements are stagnant. “Chabad,” Fuhrmann says, “seems to have a monopoly on Jewish authenticity.”  Similarly, Ederberg regrets that the Masorti movement, with whom she was ordained, “has not yet been able to give people the feeling that it is authentic Judaism. Even people who are a part of Masorti Judaism sometimes look to Orthodox Judaism as traditional Judaism.” Although she concedes that today's trailing movements lack rabbis, man power, and money, her understanding of Chabad's popularity reveals the challenges to other movements. Ederberg describes losing Bar and Bat Mitzvah students to Chabad “because we have pretty high standards and students need to work hard; they tell me that it's easier at Chabad, but we don't think we should lower our standards.”  Chabad is even appealing to Jews like Runge. While she admits that she “is not really known to be religious” she enjoys going to the occasional Chabad service. In contrast to the “classic German” Jewish Community, which she asserts “has never reached out in the last two hundred years and would rather wait for people to come to them,” Chabad is “friendly, inviting, and very open.”  Runge hopes that there will one day be an open outreach that “is like Chabad, but not Chabad” in order to reach younger people, both immigrants and younger German Jews who had initially intended to emigrate to Israel but chose to remain in Germany instead. Thus, as she looks ahead, Runge hopes that other Jewish movements will established outreach programs, but doesn't think anyone wants to organize it.  The need to actively offer Judaism to others is echoed by many.  Ederberg understands the community’s need to engage uncommitted Jews and to make Judaism meaningful and relevant to their everyday lives. Michail hopes that the liberal Jewish movement will grow and offer more programming for liberal Jews, emphasizing the need to attract young people who tend to be disinterested in Jewish traditions.  Indeed, Sergey Lagodinsky, Vice-Speaker of the Assembly of Representatives of the Jewish Community of Berlin, says, “we somehow have to figure out a way to make being Jewish seem both young and sexy.” According to Lagodinsky, the survival of Judaism in Berlin may depend on such outreach: thirty percent of Jews in Germany today are over sixty.  

A Conclusion 

Given the near annihilation of Germany’s Jewish community under the Nazi regime, its very existence on German soil is remarkable, and its growing numbers from whatever source, are miraculous. Its members’ commitment to Judaism, be it religious, cultural, ethnic, or otherwise, also reflect the profound connection that each holds to the religion of their forbearers.  Despite these strengths, it is also a community with great challenges within and without, divided by national origin, language, economics, religious knowledge and practice, and identities.  It lacks a central vision and a leader capable of uniting its multiple factions. “We have a lot of voices,” Runge notes. “What we need now are some really good conductors.”  It is also a young community with a multitude of growing pains. However, it is not a community without hope, which is reflected in the next generation, the work of all the people who so graciously spoke to us and others who work to sustain this community, as well as the long Jewish tradition of survival.
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HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2008


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