Germany boosts Judaism

The climate has improved for Jews, but divisions exist between recent Russian immigrants and those already there

For more than 50 years, Jews who lived in Germany were often asked how they could live "in the land of the murderers," referring to the Nazi massacre of more than 6 million Jews during World War II.

Ezer Weizman, then president of Israel, while on a state visit to Germany in 1996, went so far as to say he couldn't understand how a Jew could consider Germany an acceptable place to live.

That, seemingly, has all changed.

Over the past 10 years, the Jewish population in Germany has more than tripled, from under 30,000 in 1990 to more than 90,000 today, with estimates going as high as 120,000. And Jews are still coming. New congregations are springing up, while older communities are being replenished with newcomers.

Last week, the German government signed an accord that confers official status on Judaism, placing it on equal footing with the Lutheran and Roman Catholic denominations. This clears the way for Jewish groups to receive *3 million ($3.24 million) a year in government money, to support such programs as rabbinical training and settling newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants. (Germany has a similar arrangement with Christian churches to support schools and other institutions.)

"It's becoming normal to be Jewish in Germany," says Rachel Dohme, head of the Liberal Jewish Community in the small town of Hamlin. "In the next generation, it'll become a normal thing for Germans to have Jews around."

Unfortunately, however, as Ms. Dohme is quick to point out, it isn't that simple.

The Russians are coming

The rebirth of Germany's Jewish community is entirely a result of Russian-speaking Jews emigrating to Germany from the former Soviet Union. Close to 10,000 have arrived each year - over 70,000 in total - since a law was passed in the early 1990s. The small existing German Jewish community has been swamped and its demographics radically altered. Today, 85 percent of Germany's Jews are Russian, with some groups, such as Dohme's, without a single non-Russian.

Community members are quick to point out that such rapid growth comes with a cost. Immigrants, many of them elderly, need help finding housing, getting jobs, learning German, and struggling through German bureaucracy in an effort to get settled. While they receive financial help from the government, much of the work falls to the Jewish community.

"We don't have the resources to solve all of these problems," says Judith Kessler, editor of the monthly magazine Juedisches Berlin and longtime member of the Berlin Jewish community. "We don't have thousands of places in retirement homes, we don't have enough money to give each person help, and we don't have apartments and we don't have jobs. This means that expectations are not met and the Russians are disappointed and angry."

For their part, the German Jews, a group that mostly grew out of "displaced persons" from Eastern Europe after the war, are also not entirely happy about the ways immigration has changed their community. Many feel pushed aside and ignored as the focus of the Jewish institutions in Germany has turned toward the Russian-speaking newcomers. The Russian language dominates most gatherings, and the community center in central Berlin organizes chess tournaments and ballet evenings instead of rounds of skat, Germany's favorite card game.

"The Germans, the Israelis, and the Polish complain that only Russian is spoken anymore," says Kessler. "They say, 'This is not my community anymore. It is no longer that which I remember from earlier. I am getting out.'"

The immigration policy, the only law in Germany allowing for permanent immigration, originated as an effort to help Jews escape rising anti-Semitism in the former Soviet states following the collapse of communism. At the time the law was passed, the German leaders also made it clear that they felt a moral obligation to help Jews.

Despite the problems immigration is causing, the numbers coming to Germany are a far cry from the 100,000 a year who elected to go to Israel in the 1990s. While that number is tapering off, Israel is now home to 1 million Russian speakers. Likewise, the United States has absorbed over a quarter of a million Jews from the former Soviet Union since 1989.

Yet while the United States and Israel are countries born of immigration, Germany has long resisted welcoming foreigners. Nevertheless, most Russian-speaking newcomers say, despite reports of rising anti-Semitism in Germany, they feel quite welcome.

"When my family came," says Irina Sosnowski, a 23-year-old native of Krasnoda in the North Caucasus, who has been in Berlin since 1991, "Jews didn't really have much of a future in Russia. In Germany, I feel almost at home."

Igor Chalmiev, a native of Baku in Azerbaijan and now head of integration at the Jewish Culture Center in Berlin, has similar recollections. "Everyone [in my country] said the Jews were guilty of communism," he says. "They said Marx was Jewish, Lenin was Jewish, Trotsky was Jewish. And we had a big "J" in our passports. It was better to come to Germany."

Defining who is a Jew

Ironically, some of the current problems within the Jewish community come directly from Germany's liberally written immigration law for Jews. The government considers a Jew to be anyone born to a Jewish mother or a Jewish father. However, according to the Halakha, the Jewish law used by the German Jewish community, only matrilineal descendants are Jewish. Thus, thousands of those allowed into Germany on the so-called "Jewish ticket" are prohibited from joining the official Jewish community.

In addition, many have been able to come into Germany with falsified papers or even false identities created by purchasing passports from Jews who have elected to stay in Russia.

The bigger issue, however, is those Russian-speaking immigrants who are Jewish and who do join the community. Most of them, by virtue of growing up under communism, have only a very loose connection to Judaism. According to a recent survey completed by Juedisches Berlin, only 14 percent of incoming Jews join the community for religious reasons.

The result is a community that is changing quickly from the relatively homogeneous group of observant Jews who settled after World War II, to a group encompassing two distinct languages, two different cultures, radically different needs, and a growing variety of convictions as to what it means to be Jewish.

"In the bigger picture, I suppose it is part of the normalization process," says Kessler. "But on the other hand, it creates such chaos and such a huge number of competing interests. I don't have anything to do with orthodoxy but I am in the same organization [the Central Council of Jews]. I also don't have anything in common with the grandma from the retirement home but she is in the same organization. It is all very complicated."

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