BERLIN (Reuters) - Yitshak Ehrenberg has witnessed a transformation in Germany’s Jewish community during his 15 years as an Orthodox rabbi in Berlin and he is determined to harness a new generation to ensure the religion thrives here.
“After the war, most of the community were refugees, survivors, broken souls who had lost their family and sometimes even their faith,” the 62-year-old told Reuters from a luxurious living room filled with modern art and family photographs.
“Now that generation has gone and the community is twice as big but 90 percent are from the former Soviet Union. If it weren’t for the new arrivals, the synagogue would be empty,” said the Israeli-born rabbi.
Ehrenberg’s experience reflects Jewish life which has been transformed across Germany by the influx of some 200,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union in the last 20 years.
The emergence of a new generation, keen to play a part in mainstream German society, has triggered the opening of bagel bars, Jewish restaurants, schools and synagogues in cities such as Berlin, Munich and Dresden in the last decade.
Berlin, with its trendy image for young people, has also become popular among Israelis, with about 20,000 living here.
Strikingly, younger Jews no longer see themselves as victims. In stark contrast to the generation of survivors who felt a duty to remind Germans of their guilt after World War Two, they dwell little on the Nazi period and its persecutions.
Today’s community is a mix of religious and secular, orthodox and liberal, German- and Soviet-born Jews. It is very different from the pre-Holocaust community and Jewish leaders say it will never attain the cultural significance of the pre-1933 generations.
In a gesture of contrition, Germany eased immigration laws for Jews from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991.
Coming from a communist regime where religion was banned, many Jews there grew up in a secular environment and only found their roots in Judaism here.
This has strengthened Orthodoxy in Germany, cradle of the more modern, adaptable European Reformist movement in Judaism.
Ehrenberg, whose five children and five grandchildren live in Israel, says growth in the Orthodox community is outpacing other strands, helped by high birth rates among these families.
He lures young people to his synagogue with singing and dancing services on Fridays and a big meal afterwards.
But it is not only the Orthodox community that is swelling.
Marina Weisband, born to a non-religious family in Ukraine, is typical of a growing number of young progressive, secular Jews keen to play a more active role in her adopted land.
The articulate 24-year-old, who moved to Germany when she was six, rediscovered her Jewish roots in the town of Muenster.
She says she may seek a career in politics and was until recently a leading member of the Pirate Party, which has made a splash with its campaign to reform copyright and boost privacy.
Weisband thinks Jewish life in Germany is linked too closely to the Holocaust and wants to forge a new identity.
“Young Jewish people live under this shadow — they are always reminded of the Holocaust,” Weisband said in a recent television appearance.
Others agree, arguing that there is more to Jewish life.
“If people are confronted with only this one aspect of Jewishness, then a big part is missing,” said Christian Berkel, an actor whose Jewish mother fled Nazi Germany.
“The Jewish joke, the Jewish love of life and the incredible capacity to celebrate — all this is missing.”
The new generation even takes anti-Semitism in its stride.
A report published last month concluded anti-Semitism was entrenched in German society, manifesting itself not only in hate crime but also in abusive language used by ordinary people.
A recent poll showed that one in five young Germans do not know what happened at the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz.
Yet Weisband, who shrugs off hate mail she receives, believes German society needs to become tolerant of minorities generally rather than focus on anti-Semitism.
She points to former Berlin politician and central banker Thilo Sarrazin who caused a storm last year when he topped the bestseller list with his book “Germany does away with itself”, which argued German culture was at risk from Muslims.
“I think if our generation had really taken on board much from the Holocaust, then Sarrazin wouldn’t be so successful as an author. He starts from the same place, targeting one group of people,” said Weisband. “We need to tackle that.”
In a further sign of the growing influence of Germany’s Jews, an English-language newspaper, Jewish Voice from Germany, was launched this year.
Publisher Rafael Seligmann, a prominent 64 year-old writer believes it is time to tell the rest of the world, especially the United States, what is happening in Germany.
“The time is rife to show there is a new community,” Seligmann told Reuters.
The numbers alone show Jews are embracing Germany, he says.
Since 1991 the number of Jews belonging to a religious community has more than tripled to some 105,000. About the same number are non-practicing Jews or people with Jewish roots.
This compares to about 600,000 before the Holocaust and a meager 10,000 at the end of World War Two.
“We must not let Hitler have the last word,” said Seligmann, a liberal Jew who was born in Israel and lived in Germany for more than 50 years. He is happy about the Soviet immigrants.
“There are some brilliant minds among these young people. They are the future. These are the people who will continue our more than 1,000 year history in Germany,” he said.
However, the sudden arrival of so many immigrants also presents challenges and no one is under the illusion that the new generation can compare to the pre-war German Jewry who were “more German than Germans” according to the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
“We cannot compare the situation to the Jewish community before the war in terms of numbers or cultural wealth,” said Dieter Graumann, the first head of the council born after the Holocaust.
By the 1920s, Jews were better integrated than elsewhere in Europe. Famous Germans with Jewish roots ranged from poet Heinrich Heine to Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. Jews played a leading role in the cultural life of 1920s Berlin as painters, actors, theatre directors, Kabarett artists, writers and journalists. Hitler purged them ruthlessly on his accession, despising them as Jews and for their often leftist views.
“We’ll never come that far again,” Graumann told Reuters. “It can never be as it was before 1933 but we’re on a road to new growth.”
“The people from the former Soviet Union are a stroke of luck. But it means that the Jewish community is different. We have a new community with a new social architecture,” he said, adding some people from Communist states have struggled to adapt to their newfound freedom.
Jewish communities help immigrants learn German and find homes and jobs. Graumann said highly trained engineers and doctors from the Soviet Union had trouble getting good work because their qualifications are not recognized in Germany.
Critics say many former Soviet Jews stick to themselves and live in a parallel society, but Graumann argues that problem is easing as children grow up here.
The influx has also led to tensions within the Jewish community, especially in Berlin, with synagogues of varying religious persuasions competing to win over souls.
For Ehrenberg, however, the biggest problem is the prospect of Jews losing their identity by integrating too well. He says nearly half the Soviet immigrants are non-religious.
“I think the Jews who came from the former Soviet Union will stay in Germany. The question is if they will remain Jewish.”
“It is my mission to keep them on track,” he smiled.
Reporting By Madeline Chambers, editing by Gareth Jone