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Intent on Bringing Judaism to the Jews of Germany, the Conservative Movement Has Sent an Improbable Rabbi to Lead the Way

This article is reprinted with permission of The Jerusalem Post. Visit www.jpost.com.

For anyone unacquainted with Jewish demographics, it may come as something of a surprise that Germany has the fastest-growing Jewish community in the world today, but it is no surprise to Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, who last week was ordained at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, or to Prof. Ismar Schorsch, who officiated at her ordination.

Ederberg, who already serves as the spiritual leader of a congregation in Weiden in southern Germany, is in the process of establishing the first Conservative Lehrhaus (beit midrash) in Berlin. The institution, which is aimed at bringing Jewish texts to assimilated Jews, is modeled on a similar project with the same name established by Franz Rosenzweig before the Holocaust.

Schorsch, who heads both the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Schechter Institute, was born in Hanover, where his father was the rabbi. In 1940, when he was three, his family fled to the US.

Although it might appear that the various streams of Judaism would be competing for influence in this growing Jewish community, which today numbers about 100,000 (three times that of 1989), Ederberg says that on the contrary, there is such a serious shortage of rabbis and teachers that any help, from any source, is welcome.

"The world Jewish community has not had enough time to understand what is happening in Germany. There is so much to do," she says.

Some 80 percent of the Jews in Germany today are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Although there is a very high rate of intermarriage and many of those who are considered Jews are not Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), most are affiliated with the Jewish community, to which they look for their welfare and social connections, she says. This is especially true in smaller communities, she adds.

In her own congregation in Weiden, of 300 members there are only two who are not Russian. Of these, only one was in Weiden before the war.

Schorsch notes that before World War II there were also large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in Germany. In Hanover, he says, out of a community of 6,000, 1,600 were from the East.

However, he adds, there is a difference. In those days they were not allowed to become German citizens. They were not even permitted to become part of the Gemeinde, the official Jewish community, until the 1930s, when they were needed to form a minyan (quorum of 10 Jews needed to read from the Torah).

Schorsch says the German political leadership deserves a great deal of credit for the present influx of Jews. Although German citizenship requirements are extremely exclusive, the one exception is for Jews. We as Jews, he adds, should appreciate the sincerity of an effort which began with reparations, that includes a friendship toward Israel and continues with the granting of German citizenship to Jews.

"It is a country that wants to do teshuva (repentance)," Schorsch says.

However, at the same time, Schorsch expresses fears about the future of German Jewry, which he says is in danger, as is, in his view, all of European Jewry. The source, he says, is hostility toward Israel in the countries of Europe, with their ever-growing Muslim populations. The position of European Jewry has become more precarious as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the longer the situation here continues, the more precarious the situation in Europe becomes, he asserts.

Moreover, Schorsch is skeptical that the Israelis and Palestinians can solve their differences by themselves. So much blood has been shed, there is so much suspicion, that "there is little chance that the dispute can be resolved locally," he says.

The one hope, in Schorsch's view, is that the US will impose a solution on the two sides. Schorsch believes this would be in Israel's best interest since, in his words, the present Bush administration is the best friend Israel has ever had. (See box)

Ederberg, on the other hand, expresses no such doubts about the future of German Jewry. In 20 years, she says, Germany could become the center of the European Jewish community. She adds that the Conservative movement is particularly suited to serve the new German Jews. The immigrants from the former Soviet Union have a strong feeling of being Jewish, without any Jewish content. They are usually highly educated and are appreciative of a modern and intelligent version of Judaism.

"They grab it as if they have been waiting for it for 30 years," she says.

Although they themselves are not observant, she adds, they are appreciative of halacha. A Reform approach, which virtually rejects halacha, does not seem authentic to them.

"People in Germany don't understand a rabbi who doesn't observe Shabbat (the Sabbath) and kashrut (dietary rules)," she says.

For Schorsch, the effort by the Conservative movement to reach out to the Jewish community of Germany, including those who are not Jews according to halacha, is simply part of an effort to replenish the world Jewish community, which lost six million in the Holocaust. In the US too, he says, the movement makes an effort to convert children of intermarried couples.

"We don't have to convert the whole world, but we have an obligation to replenish our numerical strength. We should see intermarriage as an opportunity to bring new blood into the Jewish people," he affirms.

Interestingly, Ederberg herself is a convert to Judaism. She was converted at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where she studied for six months in preparation. In answer to the inevitable question of what her family did during the Holocaust, she notes that she had investigated this issue even before considering converting.

Her parents were both born toward the end of the war and her grandparents were ordinary Germans, neither fervent adherents nor heroic opponents of the Nazis. Her family is definitely not anti-Semitic, she insists.

"Both my grandmothers danced at my Jewish wedding," she says.

Her husband, whose family has a distant Jewish connection, is also a convert. She now divides her time between Weiden and Berlin, a six-hour train ride.

"Luckily, the train has a computer connection," she says.

In Berlin, she is planning a wide variety of activities, including the training of teachers and community leaders to work in communities where there is no rabbi. However, the core of the Lehrhaus involves addressing issues of contemporary concern in a Jewish context. She is heartened by the fact that by the second lesson, students are demanding to see the texts themselves.

Ederberg says she wanted to continue studying in New York, but Schorsch told her she must study in Jerusalem. She needed, he told her, an Israeli experience.

For Schorsch, Ederberg is typical of the role the Jerusalem institute is assuming. In addition to individual students from Europe, there are groups from the US, South America, and the Neolog rabbinical seminary in Budapest, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement.

Jerusalem, he says with satisfaction, has become the world center for Conservative Judaism.

Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "return," the way of repenting for sins in Judaism. The term is most associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Haim Shapiro writes for the Jerusalem Post.

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