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Seventy Years After Holocaust, Germany A Destination For Rabbinical Students

  • Elisabeth Braw

BERLIN -- Two years ago, Maciej Kirschenbaum decided that he wanted to become a rabbi. And if the young Pole's career choice was unusual, his choice of a place to train was even more so: Germany.

"I'm European, so I wanted to train at a rabbinical seminary in Europe, not the United States or Israel," Kirschenbaum tells RFE/RL. "Some people may say, 'Germany is a country of perpetrators,' but that doesn't convince me. That's exactly why you have to come here and help rebuild Jewish life."

There is, in fact, a lot of rebuilding going on.

Since 1990, some 220,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have moved to Germany, multiplying its 1990 Jewish population of around 30,000, and about 100,000 people are active in Jewish congregations.

The sharp increase has brought Germany's Jewish population to about half of what it was before the Holocaust. A census conducted in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, put it at 500,000.

"A hundred years ago this country was full of synagogues," notes Sarah Serebrinski, director of the Berliner Rabbinerseminar, an Orthodox Jewish seminary. "Now that's coming back."

The Rabbinerseminar is a case in point: It belongs to a 100-year-old synagogue that was converted into a cosmetics factory during the Cold War, when it was in East Berlin -- part of communist East Germany -- and has been returned to its original purpose.

Rabbis Needed, Badly

There's just one problem: There aren't enough rabbis.

"There's a huge demand for rabbis here because most of the recently arrived Jews don't know much about Judaism," says Benjamin Kochan, a 26-year-old from the Russian city of Yaroslavl, some 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

"I understand their situation, because I used to be like that myself. In Russia, my family knew nothing about what it means to be Jewish. That only happened after we moved to Germany," adds Kochan, who is now studying at the Rabbinerseminar.

"Our students grew up in the former Soviet Union," Rabbi Moishe Halpern, the seminary's spiritual leader, says. "They're Jewish, but before coming to Germany they didn't read Hebrew!"

Abraham Geiger College students Natalya Verzhebovska (left to right), Max Feldhake, Anita Kantor, Amnon Selig, and Maciej Kirschenbaum

Abraham Geiger College students Natalya Verzhebovska (left to right), Max Feldhake, Anita Kantor, Amnon Selig, and Maciej Kirschenbaum

The six-year-old Rabbinerseminar recently graduated its first students, and on a morning this month, its current crop of 11 were conducting a class, conversing in Hebrew, Russian, English, and German. In the wardrobe outside, they had parked their black coats and distinctive wide-brimmed black hats.

"I want to help Judaism play a role in people's lives," says Shlomo Sajatz, a student born in the Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk. "Jewish life should be more than something they know from the movies."

After World War II, no rabbis were trained in Germany: there were no seminaries. That changed in 1999, when the liberal Abraham Geiger College became continental Europe's first new rabbi and cantor seminary since the Holocaust. It has since graduated 31 rabbis.

This academic year, Abraham Geiger College was joined by the conservative Zacharias Frankel College. Both seminaries, part of the University of Potsdam just outside Berlin, also offer academic degree courses.

"It's great to be able to get my training here," says Sonja Pilz, an Abraham Geiger College rabbinical student. "Twenty years ago, I'd have had to go abroad." Pilz, one of the college's few German students, is also about to complete her PhD in Jewish studies there.

Students Supported, Rabbis Not So Much

People are coming here from all over the world. The student body at the Abraham Geiger College includes Russians, Hungarians, Poles, Americans, and Israelis, among others. At the Rabbinerseminar, Serebrinski reports receiving inquiries from prospective students in Britain, for decades a destination for rabbis-in-training.

"German Jewish culture was very vibrant," says Amnon Selig, a fifth-year Israeli cantor student here. "Their cantors composed music and adapted music to the synagogue. Right now there aren't many jobs for cantors, but everything is being built up. I've made the conscious decision to move here and stay."

Finances add to the German seminaries’ attractiveness. The German government underwrites the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges, and the Rabbinerseminar receives funding from both the state and private donors, including the U.S.-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Many students do not have to pay for accommodation.

"There aren't that many seminaries, and there are even fewer ones for women, so Germany is a good opportunity", says Natalya Verzhebovska, a Muscovite who's studying for the rabbinate at Abraham Geiger College. "And liberal Judaism originated in Germany."

But for Sonja Pilz, financial reality beckons when she's ordained on August 31. With Jewish congregations still building themselves up, most can't afford a full-time rabbi, and many clerics have to combine several congregations or have a secular job on the side. "One works as a tax adviser," she says. And many of the students don't intend to stay in Germany. Four Abraham Geiger graduates now serve congregations in South Africa.

Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany is not immune from the anti-Semitism seen elsewhere in Europe.

But Anita Kantor, an Abraham Geiger student from Budapest, says that being a foreign-born rabbinical student in Germany is in fact an advantage. "My job is to answer questions and make people comfortable with us," she says.

William Wolff, a Berlin-born Jew who left for Britain with his parents in 1933 and had a long career as a newspaperman there, says that "Germany today is Europe's most Jewish-friendly country." He now serves as a liberal rabbi in his native country.

Max Feldhake, an Abraham Geiger student from Phoenix, Arizona, says his experience has been positive. "I walk through Dresden and Berlin wearing a kippa," he says. "Nothing has ever happened to me."