Jewish in Bremen

For many, it is difficult to comprehend how Jews can live in Germany at all, but today, Jews are once again proliferating.

Jewish in Bremen (photo credit: Barry Davis)
Jewish in Bremen
(photo credit: Barry Davis)
Jewish communities in Germany and, for that matter, Austria are naturally considered in the context of the Holocaust whether they like it or not.
Rabbi Netanel Teitelbaum is certainly aware of this, although he says the Jews who live there do not necessarily deal with the issue on a day-to-day basis. He should know.
Israeli-born Teitelbaum has been the rabbi of the Jewish community of Bremen in northern Germany for the last three years, and has been earning his crust in the country since 2000, including a six-year tenure as spiritual head of the Jewish community in Cologne and a pivotal role in establishing the German chief rabbinate. Teitelbaum admits that, for many, it is difficult to comprehend how Jews can live in Germany at all, especially Holocaust survivors or their descendants. “But I don’t criticize anyone for moving back to Germany, or for living there,” he says. “Once, in Cologne, I met a Jew who came from the city and, after the war, returned to Cologne and lived in a house which was near the train station from which he was sent to a concentration camp.”
Today there are around 1,500 Jews living in Bremen, compared with about 4,000 who lived there before the Holocaust, and, like many communities across Germany and Austria, a large percentage of the community members originates from the former Soviet Union. Elvira Noa, who has served as head of the community since 1996, says she had her work cut out for her to get the community to where it is today and to maintain in it an interest in Judaism and in Israel.
“I built this community up because, after the war, it was very small. There were only about 100 Jews left after the Holocaust, out of several thousand. There were Orthodox and Conservative Jews here before that and the community was very strong,” she says.
I MEET with Noa in her comfortable office in the Bremen Jewish community center.
The complex houses a compactly impressive synagogue, classrooms, a kindergarten, a cultural center, a kitchen and various activity spaces. Tellingly, there are signs up on some of the doors in Hebrew, German and Russian. “We had a fully kosher Passover kitchen,” says Noa. “It is very important to make sure we can provide the children who come here with a hot meal.”
Noa not only heads the community, she also doubles as a teacher. While at the community center, I am witness to a regular Sunday midday ceremony with about a dozen children of various ages ranging from about 10 to 16. The children seem a close-knit bunch. They sing together, Noa makes a few announcements and the children disperse to their various regular Sunday activities.
“We don’t have so many children here, but we teach them different things about Judaism on Sundays,” Noa explains, adding that she makes an effort to ensure that the children gain a good grounding in Judaism from an early age. “I founded the kindergarten here in 1997,” she says, adding a surprising piece of information. “We also have non-Jewish children at the kindergarten, because we provide a good education. Altogether we have about 55 children who come here.”
Logistics also impact attendance at the cultural center. “There are parents who work quite far away, across the city, so some of the children come here every day after school, in the afternoons, and have lunch and do their homework here,” Noa explains. “It is a convenient arrangement for the children and for the parents.”
Things have changed quite a lot in the local Jewish community since Noa has been at the helm. “When the Soviet Bloc borders opened, a lot of Russian Jews came here, like they did in Israel, and they brought their culture with them to Germany,” she notes, adding that the influx of former Soviet Jews has had a telling effect on Bremen Jewry. “If they hadn’t come there wouldn’t be a community here at all anymore.
A few Jews came before, from Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but there weren’t so many of them.”
However, according to Noa, the influx was mostly a quantitative one. “The ones that came here [from the FSU] were without Jewish culture or Jewish feeling. It’s a problem.” Not all of the relative newcomers are entirely devoid of a sense of their Jewish identity, however. “The older ones have quite a strong bond with Israel and with the religion,” she continues, “but, you know, in the Soviet Union a lot of Jewish parents forbade their children from showing their Jewishness in any way because, in those days, it could be dangerous, especially during Stalin’s time. So the children grew up without Judaism.
They grew up with atheism because that’s what they learned at school and university.”
However, in Bremen, there appears to be a good range of activities available at the cultural center. In one corridor there are large color photographs of the table tennis team and other sporting and leisure activities, and there are other glossy prints of Shavuot and Hanukka ceremonies. “We have to think up activities to attract people here,” explains Noa. “Table tennis is very popular and we will have an Independence Day ceremony here. That is always well attended. We always have food at the events. Food is always a good Jewish thing to have,” she laughs.
Noa says that the center primarily caters to younger and senior members of the community.
“We don’t get many people between 30 and 60 here. The older ones come because they haven’t managed to learn German, or get used to this – for them – strange German culture. So they come here to listen to concerts – this evening we have a classical piano recital – and talk to each other, and to feel more at home.
They are very educated and also enjoy things like poetry evenings. It’s a social and cultural gathering.”
Even though the middle generation may not have too much interest in having a religious affiliation, the community leader says they still want to retain something of their roots. “The parents don’t want it for themselves, but they want their children to know they are Jewish and to know about their grandparents being Jews. The children want to come here to find some identity. You know, in immigration, identity is broken.”
Being part of the community in Bremen can also engender a healthier approach to Judaism.
“In Russia, they either did not live a Jewish life at all, or they did but in a negative way. In the first years here the children aren’t yet German, so they feel disconnected, but they feel some kind of connection here.” Still, Noa says she has to maintain a gentle approach. “The parents may want their children to have some connection with Judaism but they don’t want them to get too religious. There is some assimilation here, which, of course, we want to prevent if we can.”
Noa has some firsthand experience of searching for her own roots. She was born to German- Czech parents in Karlsruhe in southwest Germany.
There was very little in the way of Jewish tradition in her childhood. “It was a small town with a lot of Nazis,” she recalls. “The Nazis didn’t just die at the end of the world war. There were plenty of them around back then.”
Noa was in her teens when she started feeling Zionist tendencies. “My father always said that if he was younger, he would have lived in Israel,” she says. “In 1968, when I was 14, I spent a summer at Kibbutz Tel Yosef [near Beit She’an]. I wanted to stay in Israel but my parents told me to come back to Germany.” A few years later, Noa’s religious yearnings received a further, lasting push in the right direction. “I went to university at Freiberg and I met a Jewish American student who took me to a synagogue there. I heard the hazan [cantor] and his voice enchanted me. It was so beautiful.”
The community leader also has non-Jewish blood in her family. “My grandmother was born in Vienna, but she married a non-Jew from Czechoslovakia. That’s why my parents lived there,” she explains. “I suppose I have come quite a long way with all this mixed parentage, and now I am the head of the community in Bremen.”
Teitelbaum also comes a long way – on a regular basis. After living in Germany for a few years, his wife and children now live in Haifa and he commutes between the two countries.
“My children had grown up a bit, and schooling became very important,” he explains.
Besides the kindergarten at the community center, there is no Jewish education available in Bremen.
The rabbi says that, after his tenure in Cologne, which included officiating at the main synagogue there during an historic visit to Germany by Pope Benedict XVI, he was happy to relocate to Bremen. “I’d always wanted to be the rabbi of a small community. The Bremen community is traditional and with strong roots.” Rather than inspiring revolutions, Teitelbaum feels his role is to maintain the status quo. “I don’t look upon myself as a miracle worker. I am more than the oil to keep the machine running smoothly. I see that as the role of the rabbi, to preserve Judaism and a Jewish way of life.”
In fact, Teitelbaum had not planned to work in Germany. In addition to the job in Cologne, he was offered a post in Bournemouth, England.
“I wanted to go to England but my rabbi said I should go to Germany. He said there were Jews there I could help.”
Teitelbaum says that, after taking up his position in Cologne, he discovered three categories of Jews. “There are the Jews who live in Germany and will die there, there are Jews who live there, will die there, but will be buried in Israel, and there are the youngsters who want to develop [as Jews] and can be helped to start a new life somewhere else.” He hastens to add that he does not believe that Jews should not live in Germany. “There is a community in Germany which has strong roots, and it is community that is very supportive of Israel, no less so than the Jews in America.”
Teitelbaum is keen to nurture a traditional way of life in Bremen and says there is good potential for revitalizing the community there.
“We have starting working with Jewish college students in their 20s, and we have managed to do some matchmaking. They come to us every Friday – including about eight to 12 young families, which is a good nucleus.” Naturally, one also has to provide suitable sustenance too. “We are working on establishing a kosher restaurant and a store with kosher food,” the rabbi continues.
Education features highly on Teitelbaum’s todo list. “We will also try to get a Jewish school, or at least some kind of Jewish educational framework up and running in Bremen. That is of great importance.”
It looks like there is plenty to keep him gainfully occupied. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and Bremen is a great place to do the work. In German they say ‘klein und fein’ – small and beautiful.”
For Teitelbaum, working in Germany is something of a homecoming. “My grandfather came from Germany and, when I started working there, I discovered he had taken out German citizenship for me. We heard German at home so it wasn’t difficult for me to pick up the language.”
As comfortable as he feels in Germany, Teitelbaum says the Holocaust is an ever-present backdrop to Jewish life there. “I once met a 70- plus-year-old Jew who lives in Auschwitz, near the site of the train station from which he was sent to a concentration camp. He lived through the Holocaust as a young boy. I asked him how he could possibly live there and he just said ‘this is my home.’ That man has normal, happy childhood memories of the place, despite what he experienced later. You can’t criticize someone for wanting to live in the place they call home. Don’t forget that many Germans want to address the past, and to deal with it.”