Jewish life thriving again in Germany

Community is the fastest growing in the world.

german jews 298.88 ap (photo credit: AP)
german jews 298.88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Every Friday evening, Conny Jarosch and her 6-year-old daughter Alisa each light two candles, raise their hands to their closed eyes and recite an ancient Hebrew prayer to welcome the Sabbath. Conny's husband Siegfried, 42, blesses the wine and bread while his father Gerhard, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor, sings from his prayer book at the head of the table. It's an ordinary Sabbath, but celebrated in Germany's unexpectedly vibrant Jewish community, the fastest growing in the world according to the World Jewish Congress. This Passover, German Jews like the Jarosches are displaying new self-confidence about their future in the country that perpetrated the Holocaust. "Twenty years ago, this would have been impossible in Berlin," said Siegfried Jarosch, a real estate agent born and raised in the German capital. "But today we have an amazing Jewish infrastructure with kosher butchers, bakers, Jewish schools and several synagogues." The Jarosches - three generations of German Jews living under one roof - are immersed in Berlin's Jewish community life. Siegfried is on the board of a synagogue, his daughter and son Joshua, 4, go to Jewish schools, and his wife Conny, 42, keeps a kosher kitchen at home. Since the German government relaxed immigration laws for Jews following reunification in 1990, tens of thousands of Jewish migrants have come here, mostly from the former Soviet Union. According to the Central Council of Jews in Germany, an estimated 250,000 Jews now live in the country, with some 110,000 of them registered religious community members. Before 1990, there were only 23,000 Jewish community members in Germany, according to the Central Council. "In 2005, more Jewish immigrants came to Germany than to Israel," said Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council. "Without immigration, most of the Jewish communities would not exist anymore," he said, adding that about 200,000 Jews left the former Soviet Union for Germany after the fall of communism in 1989. Cosmopolitan, affordable Berlin in particular has become a magnet, home to several thousand young Israeli expatriates and hundreds of American Jews, prompting talk of a "Jewish renaissance" in a place where famous Jews like Albert Einstein and artist Max Liebermann once lived. Berlin has the biggest Jewish community with 12,000 registered members and eight synagogues, followed by Munich with 9,200 members and a new synagogue, community center and Jewish museum. In Dresden, the ordination of the first three rabbis since World War II was celebrated in September as a milestone in the rebirth of Jewish life in Germany - 62 years after the end of the Nazi genocide that killed some 6 million Jews, including 200,000 from Germany. But the numbers are still a far cry from Germany's flourishing Jewish community of 560,000 - and its cultural and intellectual prominence - before the Third Reich. While there were 600 Jewish schools in Germany before the Holocaust, there are only seven now. And in 1933 Berlin's Jewish community had 120,000 members - 10 times bigger than today. Still, says Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski, "it's a miracle that the Jewish people are coming back to resettle in Germany." The orthodox rabbi from New York came to Germany nine years ago with the U.S.-based Ronald Lauder Foundation which promotes the reconstruction of Jewish institutions in Germany and central and eastern Europe. Rozwaski, who conducts the Shabbat service at Berlin's Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, also deals with the many everyday problems the community faces today. In his office at the renovated Neue Synagogue _ a Berlin landmark overlooking the city center with its three gold-adorned blue domes - he patiently listens to the needs of Holocaust survivors or the problems of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. One of the latter is Alexander Beelitz-Geiman, a 16-year-old high school student whose father is from Ukraine and mother from Russia. Alexander arrived in Germany when he was a baby but even though he has German citizenship, he doesn't identify with this country. "I don't feel like a German at all. All my friends are Jewish," he said on a recent afternoon in the courtyard of the Jewish Youth Center, sitting under a barren chestnut tree. Alexander also talked about anti-Semitism and confrontations with Muslim immigrants over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Many Jews are afraid to say who they are because they fear it will cause them problems." In fact, all Jewish institutions _ even book stores and kosher groceries _ have 24-hour police guards and concrete barriers. And while Kramer from the Central Council for Jews says that "anti-Semitism in Germany is no better and no worse than in other European countries," he also points to the special responsibility Germany carries because of the Holocaust. For Aviv Russ, 30, a gay Israeli who moved here with his boyfriend from Tel Aviv two years ago, Berlin has been a much more positive experience. He studies German and hosts a weekly radio show in Hebrew on a local public access channel. "Berlin is beautiful and cosmopolitan, it has a big gay network and most of my friends are non-Jewish Germans," said Russ, whose grandparents are survivors of the Holocaust. There are at least 2,500 Israelis in Berlin, according to the Statistics Office Berlin-Brandenburg, many of them young artists and musicians. The actual number is probably higher because many Israelis have reclaimed the German nationality of their grandparents, who fled Nazi Germany and had their citizenship revoked. Growing up in Israel, Russ never thought much about his Jewish heritage until he came to Berlin where he is constantly surrounded by the shadows and memorials of the Holocaust. "I really found myself and my own identity in this city," Russ explained. "I feel more Jewish in Germany than in Israel."