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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Russian Jews in Berlin, Germany

In Germany, Jewish pride and growing pains

By Colin Nickerson, International Herald Tribune [1, 2, 3]

BERLIN: Shelly Kupferberg, 31, is the granddaughter of Jews who fled the Nazi terror in the 1930s for the land that would become Israel. Her parents returned to Berlin in the early 1970s, weary of Israel's wars and yearning for their German heritage. She was raised both as a Jew and a German, and takes pride in both identities.

"It's great to be a Jew in Germany," said Kupferberg, a journalist and adviser to Berlin's Jewish Festival. "There's this feeling of a unique culture being reborn - with more people in the synagogues, more Jewish artists, a sense, at last, that it's completely normal for Jewish people to be living and working here. That's something you couldn't say until recently."

In a turnaround few would have imagined, Germany today boasts the fastest-growing Jewish population in the world.

While Germany's Jewish community is full of hope for the future, its rapid expansion has brought new tensions- with animosity festering between longtime German-speaking Jews and recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom had lost their Jewish traditions, if not their identity, under decades of Communist rule.

"This is a time of difficult transition for a community that was once tiny and insular, but has suddenly grown large," said Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the nation's umbrella organization for Jewish groups. "There is friction, there is anger, there is distrust, there is fear. We have started to lay the foundation for a dynamic Jewish culture in Germany. But we are far from completing the house."

Most newcomers are from Russia - Jews seeking a better life in a more prosperous place, but also escaping the anti-Semitism that seethes in many parts of the former Soviet Union.

The "Russian Jews" - the term embraces the thousands arriving from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states - are joined by a small but significant number of young Jews from Israel, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, Germany's Jewish population stood at 530,000. Berlin, famed for tolerance, was home to some of the world's foremost Jewish writers, philosophers and scientists. By 1943, however, the Nazis had declared Germany "Judenrein," or cleansed of Jews. In fact, several thousand remained hidden in Germany or returned from concentration camps after the Holocaust, which killed six million European Jews.

Before the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall, Germany's Jewish population stood at barely 25,000, mostly survivors of World War II and their offspring. Since then, encouraged by liberal immigration laws, the number has swelled to more than 200,000, according to estimates by the government and Jewish groups. Last year, twice as many Jews, 20,000, settled in Germany as in Israel, according to Jewish groups.

Partly to atone for the Holocaust, Germany offers resettlement programs for Jews from Eastern Europe. It is much easier for Jews to win legal entry to Germany than to other parts of Western Europe or the United States.

Israel also keeps its open doors, but many Jews from the former Soviet Union see Israel as either too dangerous because of the struggle with Palestinians, or as too alien because of its Middle Eastern culture and desert climate.

"Germany is Europe, and I am European as much as I am a Jew," said Frida Scheinberg, a veterinarian who recently arrived in Germany from Ukraine. "Germany was a good place for Jews before Hitler. It feels safe and prosperous. Its cities, its climate, its customs all seem familiar. Israel seems strange to me, with the hot sun and the hot tempers."

Still, unease and bickering pervade Germany's Jewish community.

Some question whether all the newcomers can legitimately call themselves Jews; until this year, when Germany tightened the rules to weed out impostors, almost any former Soviet citizen with a Jewish ancestor could qualify.

Traditional law defines a Jew as an individual with a Jewish mother or someone who has undergone conversion to Judaism; Germany now requires that prospective Jewish immigrants have at least one Jewish parent, as well as some command of German and marketable skills.

Integration has been complicated by Germany's recent unemployment woes, with many Russian Jews drawing welfare, and resentment.

But many Jews are confident that once the economy rebounds, differences among Jews will inevitably heal.

"Many problems, yes, but most former Soviet Jews in Germany feel ourselves to be in a much safer situation," said Mykhaylo Tkach, an engineer from Ukraine. "The anti-Semitism here is minor compared to what we experienced in the places from which we came."

"In the old Russia, nothing changes - when things go wrong, blame the Jew. Germans understand such things must never happen here again," Tkach added.

Some Jewish immigrants admit to ambivalence about their choice of a new country, even as they defend it.

"There is a twinge of guilt, some secret shame, I think, in the heart of every Jew who calls Germany home," said Josef Eljaschewitsch, a physician from Latvia. "And yet, for Jews not to come here - to surrender our stolen heritage in this country - would be to give the Nazis a sort of final victory: a Jew-free Germany."

"Most of us come for bread-and-butter reasons, to make money, to ensure our children's futures are secure," he said. "But our dream is also to make Germany a place where Jews and Jewishness can once again flourish. Against all odds, I believe that's starting to happen."

The signs of a Jewish renaissance can be caught in small glints across Germany.

In Leipzig, Rabbi Joshua Spinner, a Canadian-American who has brought a missionary zeal to keeping Orthodox customs alive in Germany, recently presided at the first Jewish wedding recorded in the city since 1938, according to the Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

In Potsdam, Ukrainian immigrants, after years of holding worship services in a cramped, fluorescent-lit meeting room of a civic building, have won a patch of land from the government and are raising money to build a synagogue.

In Cologne, Frankfurt, and Hamburg, small but well-attended Jewish schools and kindergartens have opened over the past several years, intended to expose children to the Hebrew language, Torah studies and the spiritual ideas behind ritual practices. For many Jewish youngsters from Eastern Europe, this is their first formal religious instruction. A Jewish academy in Frankfurt trains girls and young women in ancient texts.

But it is in Berlin, above all, where a new German-Jewish identity is being forged. "Berlin is coming back as a center for rich Jewish life," said Irene Runge, a New Yorker who heads Berlin's Jewish Cultural Association. "It's an exciting place to be right now."

For the Orthodox, there is a new yeshiva, or religious school, sponsored by the U.S.-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. On more secular fronts, there are Yiddish theater groups, Jewish bookshops, exhibits of Jewish art and readings of Jewish poetry. Berlin's new Jewish Museum, finished in 2001, focuses on the prominence of Berlin's Jewish community from the 18th century to the early 1930s, when the city ranked as one of the most important Jewish centers in the world.

The refurbished golden dome and Moorish exterior of Berlin's old "New Synagogue" is once again a proud city landmark. Pilgrims leave small pebbles as tokens at the grave of Moses Mendelssohn, philosopher of the German Enlightenment.There is a sprinkling of kosher shops that do brisk business in matzohs, gefilte fish and sweet Israeli wine. There are two rival Jewish newspapers, both published in German. And most tourist stands display colorful guides and maps to "Jewish Berlin" -a term that no longer connotes horror.

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