Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reflections on Germany, Part 2: Jewish life today

The historic Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt, Germany was completed in 1910 and remains a significant Jewish institution in the city today. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
During the week I spent in Germany I had a chance to encounter several different Jewish communities from many angles, meeting lay leaders, rabbis and others who are actively engaged in the important work of building and maintaining Jewish life in the country. What makes this experience all the more remarkable is that such an effort would have been utterly unimaginable 70 years ago, and is happening today in a climate in which minority communities across Europe find themselves at the center of contentious debates surrounding identity and immigration.

Even in very small communities there are differences in opinion, family custom and religious practice. This is true in the US, It's certainly true in Israel and perhaps it should come as no surprise that the same can be said of Germany. In fact, I don't believe there is anywhere in the world where the Jewish community is entirely homogeneous, and I seriously doubt this has ever been the case. Such differences can be harmfully divisive at their worst, but in the best circumstances they actually strengthen the community, providing space and opportunity for robust dialogue about the things we care the most about.

The sanctuary of the Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt, Germany. The building did not suffer excessive damage during Kristalnacht or the bombing of WWII, and was restored relatively quickly following the end of the war. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 
To add another layer of complexity to the topic of modern Jewish identity in Germany, the community there is supported directly by the government. This means that in order to access most (if not all) services provided by the official Jewish institutions,  Jewish individuals must officially "join" a community and pay a religious tax to the government as part of this arrangement. At the same time, there are individuals in Germany which opt not to join a community, who still live Jewish lives (however they interpret that idea), yet are not eligible for services or counted as part of the "official" Jewish population by the German government.

At the Jewish Museum in Berlin exhibits explore centuries of Jewish life in Germany.Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
One thing I was really fascinated by when it came to the question of modern German Jewish identity was how some of the people we met with would tell us right away that, "today there are no German Jews in Germany, the community was rebuilt immediately after the war by other European Jews who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war." For the moment I'm going to leave aside the veracity of the details of this claim, since I did, in fact, meet Jews living in Germany today who told me that one or both of their parents had been born in the country. What really interested me about this claim, though, was that it seemed to contain some very interesting ideas, emotions and notions of legitimacy surrounding identity.

At the Central Welfare Office of Jews in Germany, Head of the Social Services Department Paulette Weber and Director Benjamin Bloch explain the work their organization does to help strengthen Jewish life in Germany today. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015. 
To unpack this a bit further, the first thing that strikes me in this sentiment is that it puts foremost the idea that all German Jews living in the country prior to the war were either permanently displaced or murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Based on other things I heard and saw, this appears not to be entirely true, and yet for at least part of the community, it seemed like an essential foundational myth. Just to clarify, I use the term "myth" here in a value-neutral way, simply in the sense that a "myth" is a story that we tell ourselves about ourselves, in order to better understand ourselves. But why? I kept coming back again and again to this question throughout 5 days of meetings - does believing this grant greater "legitimacy" to the displaced European Jews who did indeed form the core of the first new community after the war? Does it simplify the narrative in conversation with the German government and other key interlocutors?  Is it a survival mechanism - a way to provide psychic and emotional distance in a place where practically everywhere one turns there are reminders of the Shoah? I don't know what the answer is, but the question remains in my mind.

In addition to displaced European Jews who wound up in Germany at the end of the war and stayed, the Jewish population of the country has also been bolstered by subsequent Jewish immigration. The largest, and perhaps most influential example of this is the influx of more than one hundred thousand Jews from the Former Soviet Union, who found a new home in Germany following the collapse of Communism. The most recent, and I think most interesting chapter in the story of post-WWII Jewish immigration, is the case of thousands of Israelis to moving to Berlin and other parts of Germany.

Israeli journalist Tal Alon discusses life in Germany, what brought her to the country and her work as the publisher of "Spitz," the first Hebrew-language periodical published in Germany since the end of WWII. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In discussions surrounding the arrival and integration of Russian-speaking Jews to Germany I heard echoes of similar challenges faced in Israel and the United States. Traumatized by  Communist societies that simultaneously denied them a chance to understand their heritage while at the same time penalizing them for being Jewish, so-called "FSU Jews" and the communities which attempted to welcome them in the US and other places found integration to be a difficult process. In Germany we heard much about the "Russian-Speaking Jews," but only had the chance for an impromptu conversation with two such individuals, who found themselves unexpectedly pressed into service as (clearly nervous) representatives of all Russian-speaking Jews in the country. The story of Soviet Jewry both during and after Communism is long, complicated and will not be explored further here, but suffice it to say that as in many other places, in Germany, work remains to be done if Russian-Speaking Jews and their descendants are to become an integral part of the larger Jewish community.

Israeli entrepreneur Daniel Paz shares insights on business and life as an Israeli in Germany on the terrace of the Max Liebermann Villa in Potsdam, Germany. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
The question of why Israelis have been moving to Germany, and specifically to Berlin, has been a source of great speculation in the media, and I admit it seems somewhat surprising at first glance. In an engaging conversation with Israeli entrepreneur Daniel Paz and Israeli journalist Tal Alon, I gained some insights into what brings Israelis there and how they feel about living in Germany. In the case of Mr. Paz, it was an opportunity to live somewhere new, expand his view of the world and build a new business. For Ms. Alon, family ties brought her to Germany, where she founded Spitz, the first Hebrew publication to exist in post-WWII Germany.

That this conversation took place in the garden of the Liebermann Villa in Potsdam only added to the somewhat surreal character of the conversation. At the same time, I suppose it’s not so surprising that young Israelis would be drawn to a modern European nation where English is widely spoken. Furthermore, as several Israelis noted, Germany and Israel are not that far from each other, making it easy for those living in Germany to maintain ties with home. The two main questions surrounding the presence of Israelis in the country, both among Israelis and the larger Jewish community, was when and if there would be more integration between the two groups, and, whether this Israeli community in Germany is an historical blip or the start of an enduring trend. Only time will tell, but my guess - and it is only a guess - is that Berlin will continue to attract young Israelis, especially artists, for years to come, but whether a significant number will remain and raise families in Germany seems doubtful to me.

In terms of the infrastructure of Jewish life in Germany it was interesting to visit several synagogues and organizations, including the main synagogue and Jewish Community Center in Frankfurt, as well as the Central Council of Jews in Germany, located at the Leo Beck Haus in Berlin. In many ways the challenges the communities in Germany face are similar to what we see here in the United States and yet there are many important and quite stark differences. To begin with, the relationship between the community and the government is clearly still a freighted, if not fraught, one.

The University of Potsdam in Germany is now home to a thriving program in Jewish studies, attracting students from across Europe and beyond. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.
In many ways the German government has done an outstanding job of providing vital resources, including funding and security, to Jewish communities across Germany. At the same time, there exists a disparity between the support that Jewish communities get from the government and that which is provided to other immigrant or ethnic communities - this is problematic, since it suggests that robust support for Jewish life in Germany is based at least partly on guilt, something which can, and has, led to some feelings of resentment in some segments of German society. At the same time, this apparent favoritism has the potential to stoke tensions between the Jewish community and other ethnic and religious minorities in Germany. I'm not arguing in any way that Germany does not have an historical obligation to help rebuild what it once destroyed, just that the picture of Jewish community in Germany today, and the relationships that exist with the government and society, is not a simple one.

For me personally there were many moving and encouraging moments as I looked at Jewish life in Germany today. One image that stands out in particular is visiting the Jewish Community Center in Frankfurt and seeing Jewish children playing outside, wearing kippot and speaking German as they laughed and ran around. I also had the opportunity to standing a Synagogue in Berlin, badly damaged during Kristalnacht and now once again home to a thriving community. The idea alone that Jews are willing to emigrate to, and build Jewish lives within, Germany is a testament to both the resilience of the Jewish people and the willingness of the German government to support this Renaissance. Although in absolute numbers there are somewhere around two-hundred thousand Jews in the country, from the conversations we had, it still felt like the active community is fairly small.

In this context, it strikes me that the future of Jews and Jewish community in Germany will really depend on the level of commitment  by current leaders to not only better integrate various smaller communities, but to create the expectation that successive generations will seek to do the same. There were a few signs of cooperation that made me think that this can actually be achieved – for example, the fact that the Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt is home to three separate communities which pray separately but share almost everything else, is very positive. There is also some indication that as young Israelis are getting married and beginning to raise children in the country they are slowly reaching out to some of the Jewish institutions in Germany.  In the end, Germany may have the Jewish population to continue to rebuild the community, but if these divisions continue to serve as defining elements I fear that German Jewry will face the same fate which befalls small communities everywhere, which is not a very bright one.

(This piece is the second in a series of three on my recent trip to Germany at the invitation of the German Foreign Office as part of an international group of 16 Jewish community and civil society leaders, representing nations from Uzbekistan and the Ukraine to Argentina,  Australia, Canada and Slovenia.  My fellow participants, both Jews and non-Jews, as well as our guides, brought a wide range of perspectives and ideas to the experience, something for which I shall be eternally grateful.)

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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