Berlin's Jewish Community

There's a common misconception (or hype) about our Jewish community that supposedly has been “revived". Many newspapers and magazines have been talking about Germany's - and specifically Berlin's - recent Jewish “revival" after its destruction by the Nazis.

Is it really so? And what should you expect when coming to Berlin for the first time?

Before the Nazis came to power, Berlin's Jewish community had about 160,000 official members. There were also non-affiliated Jews, just like today. Except today, the community has just about 10,000 members. Not really a revival.

But it's not just a huge number gap. It's also about the personal background of the people that actually make the community what it is. Eight decades ago, the majority of Jews in Berlin were born here and their mother tongue was German. There were quite a few immigrants, but that was still the exception, not the rule. It was, at least in its own self-understanding, very much a German-Jewish community, often more German than Jewish. That was the context of famous people such as Albert Einstein. Unlike the typically orthodox/traditional immigrants, the local Jews affiliated themselves with the Reform movement in one way or another.

Nowadays, the majority of Jews in Berlin are immigrants, who - just like myself - were not born here and whose mother tongue is not German. There are some families that can actually trace their roots back to that glorious time before the Nazis, usually descendants of Jews that left Germany before the war and came back after the war (for various reasons, often having to do with cultural difficulties in their countries of “exile" or with family property that could be claimed in Berlin). But that's the exception, not the rule. Everybody else was either born to immigrants or, in most cases, is an immigrant.

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The post-war Jewish immigration to Germany in general and to Berlin in particular can be broken down to four phases:

1. Displaced Persons

After the war, hundreds of thousands of Jewish DPs came from Eastern Europe to the American DP camps. Unlike most DPs, who left Germany when they were finally permitted to do so, some actually stayed here. Usually it had to do with business and similar reasons, without any intention to establish a new Jewish future in Germany. Those were survivors whose world was lost in the Holocaust and who lived here “on their suitcases".

Their children were born here and grew up as “German" Jews, but were still looked down upon by the not so many “original German" Jews who came back. Later on, specifically in 50's, more Polish Jews came, having left Poland because of the anti-Semitism of the communist regime.

It's hard to estimate the numbers of these pre-unification communities, but in Germany as a whole there were about 25-30 thousand, most of them in West Germany and about several hundreds in the GDR (in 1933, there were about. 520,000 Jews in Germany).

2. German converts

In comparison to other countries or to pre-war Germany, we're talking about unusually high numbers of conversions. Since the predominantly Yiddish-speaking DPs couldn't really take on the role of the missing German Jews, the lasting vacuum began to attract non-Jews. “2nd generation Germans", i.e. the children of the war generation, began to enter the empty stage as of the 70's. For many of them, it wasn't just about a Jewish life, but about a career. They often began to fulfill public functions in ways that wouldn't have been possible for converts in other countries and under normal circumstances. At least for the German majority, they became the new “Jewish voice", perceived - not against their will - as authentic representatives and true heirs of the murdered German-Jewish legacy. In Berlin for example, the congregation that gathers at the Jewish community center (the so-called “New Synagogue") is a well-known center for non-Jews who want to convert or have already done so, including the rabbi and other functionaries.

3. Soviet Jews

During and after the collapse of the USSR, Jews had a very unique opportunity to immigrate to Germany. Nowadays, this is by far the most significant group in our Jewish landscape. Unlike the Displaced Persons, these Jews made a conscious decision to begin a new life in Germany. From 1990 to 2005, Germany allowed Jews from former Soviet countries to immigrate to Germany as “refugees" and, eventually, become German citizens. The official reason was that they are persecuted in the former USSR (where there was a rise in Antisemitism). But since they could have gone to Israel, it wasn't really about that. The real reason was that the massive immigration of Jews out of the former USSR (usually to Israel or to North America) presented a “once-in-a-lifetime" chance to “revive" Jewish life in Germany by “importing" Jews from the last large Jewish reservoir in the continent. Yet there were quotas for the number of “refugees" that could come each year. In fact, those that wanted to go to Germany usually had to wait in the former USSR for several years for their turn. Instead of escaping immediately to Israel, they preferred to stay in the former USSR - where according to Germany's official argument they were in danger - because by leaving too early they would have lost the option to be “refugees" in Germany. Generally speaking, it was a rather “old" immigration, because the young Jews often went to North-America or Israel.

Did it work? Yes and no. It did raise the number of Jews very significantly to about 110,000 all over Germany. But it didn't revive anything. Firstly, because these were people whose heritage didn't relate to German-Jewish culture. As Eastern-European Jews, their tradition had nothing to do with Reform Judaism. And more importantly, seven decades of communism disconnected them from their Jewish roots. Germany expected them to resettle and simply “be Jewish". But for most of them, that became a real challenge.

In some places, like in Berlin, there was already a Jewish community that tried to support and help, but the massive Russian speaking immigration basically turned the Jews that were already there into a minority in their own community, causing a lot of inner conflicts that still go on. Although many Soviet Jews lived in Ukraine, they are now generally referred to as “the Russians" and are sometimes looked down upon by the “German Jews" that were here before - namely the children of the Eastern-European Displaced Persons...

In most places there was no Jewish community before this immigration. The often clueless “refugees" were sent by the German authorities to create Jewish communities. We now have 105 of them in Germany - most of which only exist thanks to the Russian speaking emigration. In Berlin, where there was a Jewish community before 1990, the percentage of Russian speaking Jews is considered rather low - about 85% of the community members. The vast majority is not religious, but many do show up for the High Holidays. Eventually, the massive immigration was basically brought to an end by requiring “Jewish refugees" to have some knowledge of German before being given the permission to resettle. This was done in order to let the Jewish communities cope with the immense change that had already taken place.

4. Contemporary Expats

The most recent contribution to Jewish life in Berlin - not so much elsewhere in Germany - is thanks to the ongoing immigration of American and Israeli expats. Many come for a short time (from several months to a couple of years) and don't actually settle here, so it's not a real immigration in the usual sense of the word. They are typically young and come here to work (often as programmers), to do art (often musicians) or because of their academic studies (like myself). One synagogue in Berlin (“Fraenkelufer") was quite forgotten and inactive until it was discovered by a group of young expats. But generally speaking, young Jewish expats are not active in Berlin's Jewish community, at least not in the religious sense of the term.

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So what does it all mean? With the overwhelming majority being immigrants, our current community is not, and cannot, be a “revival" of the pre-war German-Jewish community. The community you'll find here should probably not be described as a community of “German Jews", but rather as “Jews in Germany", whose descendants might one day become “German Jews" in one way or another, but at the moment, we're really not there yet. It is not a coincidence that the umbrella organization of our Jewish communities - the Central Committee - isn't called “The Central Committee of Jewish Germans" or “The Central Committee of German Jews", but simply - and accurately - “The Central Committee of Jews in Germany".

I'm often asked by my guests: Why did the Jews come back? The answer is, as you now know, that they actually didn't. We didn't come “back", because - with very few exceptions - we are not the German Jews that were once here. We were never here before we immigrated.

Currently, many Jewish communities in Germany are shrinking again (Berlin is an exception, not the rule). The rather elderly ex-Soviet Jews are gradually leaving us. Young Jews move to places like Berlin, London or Tel-Aviv. Only time could tell if the changes described here would actually establish in Germany a new Jewish future in a lasting, sustainable way - or if this is just a short episode that wouldn't turn the wheel around.