Rebekka and I are honored to be your guests this weekend. We wish to thank Gertrud Lind, Art Herz, Georg Gazarek, Rabbi Kotok and Cantor Berger for inviting and including us in this lovely Kabbalat Shabbat serviceand to think that it all began because of our Web site!
I have been asked to share my experiences with you tonight. I have been asked to tell you the history of our congregation in the Pied Piper and Glueckl town of Hamelin. The story of our congregation is a very personal story. It is a part of my history.
Just last week we remembered the 70th Jahrzeit of the Progrommnachtthe 9th of November, 1938. A night when the world stood by struck in horror and watched the beginning of the end of German Jewry. Our town, sadly, was no differentJews were harassed and demeaned by the mob and forced to watch as their homes, businesses, their synagogue and lives were destroyed.
In Hamelin, our congregation sponsored a Memorial and Benefit Concert, which was attended by 500 Hamelin citizens. It was made more meaningful by the fact that six members of the original Jewish families from Hamelin had returned to our town. Rabbi Lengyel opened the concert with memorial prayers as each of the six family members lit one yellow candle, symbolizing the Six Million. With tears streaming and a shaking voice, Eva Kratzenstein, the granddaughter of the last president of the Jewish community of Hamelin, turned to me and said, Remember, everyone has a history, which nothing can erase.
This is my history:
I grew up in Butler, Pennsylvania, a small town south of Pittsburgh. My large family was and still is close-knit. We belonged to Bnai Abraham Synagogue, a conservative shul. I went to Sunday school, Hebrew school, did not celebrate Bat Mitzvah, as it was not common thenthank goodness things have changed. I was confirmed, attended college nearby, and began my life as a special educator.
During one of my subsequent teaching positions, I met a young German postdoctoral student at Penn State University, and our history began. We made our home in a tiny village in Northern Germany and established a familythree beautiful children, Max, Rebekka, and Julian.
As the children grew, finding a Jewish community became more and more important to me. It was Rosh HaShana 1986, and we were the only Jews in Hamelin. I packed my little son Max in the car and traveled to Hanover, about an hour away. There was the only synagogue in our state. When we arrived we were met at the door. Not the way you are met here with a smile and a Shabbat greeting but with a stony face and a hand gesture. The wordless gesture was repeated until I finally understood, taking Max hand and climbing the stairs. I had never been in a womans gallery before. During the long service, conducted only in Hebrew, my little son asked me why the guy in the chefs hat was talking to the wall and when we could leave. I swore then I would find another synagogue for myself and my children (I was pregnant with Rebekka at the time) even if I had to create it myself. Prophetic words for my history.
By 1990, I had three children under the age of 6, and I had still not found a synagogue. Again, history took a turn.
After the war, Germanys Jewish congregations were structured in an organization called ZRdJD, Central Council of Jews in Germany. It was/is a national umbrella organization for all Jewish congregations in Germany. In 1990 fewer than several thousand Jews, former DPs and their children, lived in Germany. The German government supported the congregations financially, but there was barely a synagogue where a minyan could be found, and funerals were more prevalent than brisses. In short, the few congregations there were, were dying out. The remnant of post-Shoah Germany was dwindling away. The synagogues were all Orthodox, and even today with 21 Reform synagogues in Germany, the Central Council, supposedly the representative for all streams of Judaism, continues to project German Jewry as Orthodox.
And so, then Central Council President Ignatz Bubitz and then Chancellor Helmut Kohl met and agreed upon a plan to revitalize Germanys Jewish communities. And how?
By signing a document to allow FSU Jews to immigrate to Germany, no age limit, no time limit, no limits whatsoever. Being halachically Jewish was not a prerequisite. And they came and are coming still.
Two hundred thousand FSU Jews have entered Germany since 1990 making Germany one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in Europe today. In the span of one decade, in the state of Lower Saxony, where we live, the Jewish population went from 900 to 9,000. In our town of Hamelin, from 4 to 400.
In 1990 the first Jews came to live in temporary housing near my home. With my children in the car, I drove to them and we started our work.
In 1997 history got really personal. On February 17th I registered the first post-war Jewish Congregation of Hamelinwith a membership of 18 adults, 17 Russian men and women, and myself.
I left the lawyers office, kissed my children goodbye, and flew home to tell my father, who died two days later. His last words to me were: You did good, Rachie. Now my grandchildren will have a shul to go to.
Today our congregation of more than 200 is a member of both national Jewish organizationsone for political reasons and one for ideological reasons. The Central Council and the UPJ. The Central Councils purpose is to represent Jews politically and socially. The UPJ represents the Liberal voice within the Central Council and Germany as a whole. At first considered a bothersome nuisance, the Central Council was finally forced to take usour rabbis and our synagoguesseriously, especially since the establishment of the first rabbinic seminary, Abraham Geiger College.
The UPJ is also a member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism a membership which was pivotal as we faced inner-Jewish discrimination in our beginnings. Thanks to North American Jews (Rabbi Kotoks presence at one such meeting helped send the message that we were not alone) and the WUPJ, the German government forced the Central Council to include our communities and share the funding. While the war was won, battles still ensue.
For example in our state of approximately 9,000 Jews (at least on paper), there are two state organizations, one Orthodox, one Liberal, representing 14 congregations. These two organizations negotiate with the state Ministry of Culture for annual funding, a combination of personal religious tax and government subsidies. The funding is per capita. There is no system of checks and balances. The ministry believes whatever the state boards report. I have to explain at this point that all citizens are registered and taxed if employed, according to religion. If one is Jewish, one is automatically enrolled with the Orthodox state board, and one must officially remove oneself from that list. I did that for my children and myself, but very few people bother, especially the Russians. The Orthodox state board claims for all Jewish residents, while the Liberal board claims for only registered, dues-paying members (a concept unknown in the Orthodox communities but for us, an ethical decision).
In concrete terms, in our state it is 1.1 million to 110,000 Euros: 1.1 million for the Orthodox and 110,000 Euros for our congregations. If we do the math, it works out to about 20,000 Euros for our congregation annually.
I hope many of you have or will visit us online to see what we have achieved and accomplished in our first 11 years. We offer our members a modern Liberal synagogue structure, providing for their religious, social and cultural needs as best we can. Primarily, lay-led, we mentor a rabbinical student each year and receive visits from our rabbi, Irit Shillor, six times a year.
At our services tonight in Hamelin, twin babies are being welcomed into our congregation with a baby blessing, and on Monday one of our founders is being buried. Ldor vdor.
Its been a challenge, every step of the way. We have had to reestablish Reform Judaism in the land of its birth. We have had to do this within an atmosphere of hostilitynot from Germans, but from our Orthodox brothers and sisters. And we have had to do it with members, whod had their Judaism denied by an inhumane Soviet government. A government who put in a J in their passports in order to control and discriminate against them but tried to eradicate it from their hearts and souls—a system that taught distrust and attempted to destroy every healthy Jewish and human value learned through generations.
The past 70 years almost wiped out European Jewry. We need to remember that there were two Holocaustsone of the body perpetrated by the Nazis, and one of the soul perpetrated the Soviet Union. That Jewish life has returned to Germany in spite of these horrific odds is nothing less than a miracle.
Our congregation, with 95 percent FSU Jews, is a tribute to the human spirit, yearning for God, and to those who came before us. The task is sacred. We are building history.
The visible sign for all to see will be realized with the construction of the Hamelin Synagogue upon the very soil where it stood from 1879 until 1938the first newly constructed Reform Synagogue in Germany.
Our history is sharedyours, mine, theirs, all Jews. I hope to have given you a feel for our chapter, a chapter still being written.
As one member recently said, You know Rachel, I always had a J in my passport, but it was only here, in our congregation, that I learned to feel Jewish. Thank you.
Danke Schön, Spasiba, Toda Raba, Thank you.