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Germany: Berlin Facing Challenge Of Assimilating Russian-Speaking Jews

By Asen Geshakov Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau carries the Torah into the synagogue of the new Jewish community center in Berlin during its official opening earlier this month (AFP) Berlin recently celebrated the opening of Germany’s first privately funded Jewish community center since World War II, two days after the country’s largest synagogue was reopened following a major renovation. It is a sign that 60 years after the Holocaust, Germany is once again a hub of Jewish life. Indeed, the Jewish population has increased fivefold over the past two decades. The vast majority of the new migrants are native Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union, and their assimilation is posing a significant challenge.

September 17, 2007 – Jews resident in Berlin are at last starting to reach their pre-World War II numbers.

Berlin’s Jewish population was 173,000 in the 1920s. By the end of the Nazi era, however, it had fallen to just 6,500, the number who somehow escaped roundups in the city.

That number grew slowly to some 20,000 during Berlin’s decades of communist rule. But when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, things began changing quickly. Now, 18 years later, the size of the Jewish community in Berlin is estimated at 120,000 people – 60 percent of the 200,000 registered Jews in Germany overall.

The vast majority are not German by origin, however. They are from the former Soviet Union.

Demographic Push

Experts say the migration is mostly due to an East German law passed in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall but before reunification. That law allowed Jews from within the Soviet bloc to resettle in Germany solely on the merit of proving Jewish ancestry. The law was kept after reunification and provided an opening into Western Europe for Soviet Jews.

"A lot of laws that the former GDR passed were kept in the process of reunification," explains Rabbi Walter Homolka, executive director of the Abraham Geiger College at the University of Potsdam, "and that actually was the basis [of] how so many Russian immigrants could come. The fact was that the regulation slipped in from East Germany into unified Germany’s regulations. But I think it was more than just that. I think there also was a clear understanding that it would enable a demographic push for the Jewish communities of the whole of Germany, and I think that’s why they kept the regulation."

The government did recognize that it was a politically sensitive move. According to Sergei Lagudinsky, an author and legal scholar at the American Jewish Community in Berlin, the legislative process was not discussed very publicly.

"Since they were looking for a way of regulating this immigration without constructing a special law which would be specially mentioning Jewish immigrants," Lagudinsky says, "they used the law which they created for the so-called ‘boat people’ – refugees from Vietnam in the early 1980s – and applied it, as they say in Germany, ‘in analogy’ to Jewish immigrants."

Nevertheless, the law enabled hundreds of thousands of East European Jews to seek German citizenship. So widespread did the practice become that at points there were more Jewish migrants settling in Germany than in Israel. This is because emigrating to Germany was seen as economically more desirable. Commentators point to the Israeli economy’s shaky performance, but also to the political volatility of the Middle East, which deterred would-be migrants.

Community Blossoming

Today, the Jewish community in Germany is blossoming. In a sign of the resurgence, Germany’s biggest synagogue reopened August 31 after undergoing a three-year restoration. At the reopening ceremony, the 1,200-capacity synagogue hosted many distinguished German Jews, some of them Holocaust survivors.

And yet here, too, the remarkable renaissance can at least partially be attributed to the influx of Jews from the East.

The service was led by Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski, who came from his native Belarus to settle in Berlin in 2000. And Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum historical and cultural foundation, told the crowd to cheers and applause that "you are always welcome here" – in German, but then also in Russian.

"I think part of the problem in the Jewish communities is that the amount of newcomers made the established community feel that their priorities are not seen anymore, and this really led to some friction within communities and also communities really split over these issues." -- Rabbi Walter Homolka

Even Berlin’s monthly Jewish paper, "Judische Korrespondenz," is published in Russian, as well as German.

But the growth of the Jewish community has not been without problems. Many of them have centered on how to integrate so many new arrivals so quickly. Surprisingly, some experts say that enrolling the newcomers in Germany’s secular social system has been easier than bringing them into the previously small Jewish community.

Homolka explains that the government made social benefits easily available and provided generous support for securing housing and jobs, despite Germany’s overextended social budget in the aftermath of reunification. By contrast, local Jewish communities regarded the sudden influx of Russian speakers with some unease.

"Whether there was always the emotional welcome there that these people really need, that’s another question," Homolka says. "I think part of the problem in the Jewish communities is that the amount of newcomers made the established community feel that their priorities are not seen anymore, and this really led to some friction within communities and also communities really split over these issues."

'Painful Process'

Lagudinsky also recognizes the unease displayed by the German Jews who suddenly realized that their institutional power was endangered by the influx of Russian-speaking Jews. But he calls this transformation inevitable.

"We see in many Jewish communities that Russian speakers are coming to power," Lagudinsky says. "This is a very painful process for the community as a whole, and it’s not always a good process, but it’s a democratic process and I guess we’ll all have to live with this."

Homolka says it is the sheer number of migrants that has overwhelmed the established German Jews and given rise to mixed emotions.

"Jewish communities did whatever they could to help these people integrate," Homolka says. "The problem is, of course, the size of this new group. We were about 20,000 Jews in 1989. Now we are about 200,000. That means 20,000 should have integrated 200,000. That’s not working."

Lagudinsky echoes this by saying, "I think the word ‘integration’ here is wrong. You cannot integrate 90 percent of [the] Jewish community into 10 percent of [the] Jewish community."

Still, many feel there are ample grounds for optimism.

"All I can say is that one really should also think about the German Jewish population," Homolka says. "They are also immigrants of former waves of immigration."

And, he says, if the Jewish community in Berlin has already survived this long – against so many adversities – it should be able to pass this new test, too.

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