Jews in a box: Can Germany afford to let its Jewish community disappear?

Jews in a box: Can Germany afford to let its Jewish community disappear?

This Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was designed by architect Peter Eisenman.
(Photo provided by
This Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was designed by architect Peter Eisenman. (Photo provided by

BERLIN — An exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin raised eyebrows two years ago for its examination of the discomfort of Germans with the Jews in their midst. In the exhibit, a Jew sat in a three-sided Plexiglas container and answered questions posed by curious Germans. The audacity of “Jew in a box” was noted at the time — a concept more at home in hipster New York than in Germany, where chilly, un-ironic formality is still the norm.

The Jew as museum specimen and oracle to ordinary Germans, most of whom have never met a one, appears to be the very condition Germany’s Jewish community finds itself in today. It’s a situation preferred by those who choose to register with the government to belong to the official Jewish community — an arrangement head-scratchingly foreign to American Jews with their rough-and-tumble, First Amendment-driven communal setup.

 In Germany, there are tangible benefits in belonging to the official Jewish community — including being on the receiving end of the government’s policy of treating Jews as a protected population after the Nazi genocide. The government and the official Jewish community both have a stake in a community with one address and one voice. The official Jewish community, in particular, feels threatened by those who don’t buy into the consensus.

I discovered the contours of the German Jews in a box this month, when I joined an international group of 16 writers, scholars and communal and museum professionals for a weeklong tour of Jewish Germany. Sponsored by the German Foreign Office, the tour took us to present and past Jewish sites in Berlin and Frankfurt, each touched by the Shoah and reinvented — as has Germany and its Jews.

There are an estimated 110,000 Jews in Germany. But just who a German Jew is is a matter of serious concern to communal leaders.

Paulette Weber, head of social services for the Frankfurt-based Central Welfare Office of Jews in Germany, put it bluntly:  “There are no more German Jews in Germany.”

Her meaning would be perfectly understood by European nobility, Boston Brahmins, or any other group that defines itself by its lineage: The Jews in Germany, even those who speak German, are not real German Jews.

The reason is the Holocaust, which wiped out a 1,500-year-old Jewish presence in Germany. As another speaker told us:  “German Jewish culture ended in 1945.”

The 20,000 Jews who stepped out of concentration camps in Germany were not natives, but Jews from the East. They became the new German Jewish community. When the Iron Curtain fell in the late 1980s and 200,000 ex-Soviet Jews came to Germany, the community was transformed again.

The fact that the small community absorbed an immigrant population 10 times its size is a point of pride. Only about half of the ex-Soviet Jews registered to the Jewish community. Those Jews who opt in pay a 9 percent church tax in addition to their income tax (Catholics and Protestants do the same for their communities), which the community receives back from the government.

“If you don’t opt in, you can’t register kids in the school or be buried in

the community cemetery,” Jennifer Marställer, director of the Ignatz Bubis Community Center in Frankfurt, told us. “You can get married, but not by [the community] rabbi.”

For Germany’s numerous elderly Jews, opting out means no community eldercare.

The community center, in this city of 7,000 Jews, hosts a kindergarten, a youth center, a ballroom, a senior citizens’ center and a kosher restaurant. Like other Jewish institutions, one enters only after passing through extensive security.

And like the community itself, it’s clear who belongs and who does not.

The price of unity

It’s a truism in Germany that most Jews want an Orthodox rabbi for their synagogue, even if none of the congregants are observant. It’s a nod to their memories of Eastern Europe, where the man with the beard was the authority.

Many of Germany’s Orthodox rabbis are trained abroad, but the Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin is trying to produce home-grown leaders. Located inside Beit Zion, which was built as an Orthodox synagogue in 1912 and witnessed Kristallnacht, the seminary is one of Rabbi Joshua Spinner’s projects to encourage Orthodoxy in Berlin. The Baltimore-born modern Orthodox rabbi is CEO of the Ronald Lauder Foundation. With Lauder backing, Spinner sees no reason for the synagogue and seminary to sign on to Berlin’s official Jewish community.

“Jewish life in Germany in the official structure is an artificial structure,” Spinner told us.

It was created and sustained by political will, rather than by the primary needs of Jews, he said. “It exists to be seen. It exists to be reported on.”

None of the official communities in Germany are self-sustainable, he continued, because so many Jews are elderly, and do not contribute to the tax base.

Across town, the University of Potsdam’s Sanssouci campus is housed in the former summer palace of Frederick the Great. There, the Institute for Jewish and Religion Studies offers a liberal approach to Judaic education. In a seminar room, Rabbi Nils Ederberg from the university’s Abraham Geiger College criticized Spinner for not entering the communal fold.

“A Jewish community of this size — we have to work closely together,” he said. “Unified communities — it’s the best advantage we have in Germany.”

We had discovered just how small the community was (there are an estimated 50,000 Jews in Berlin) by how a speaker at a meeting would refer to someone who spoke to us at a previous meeting, as if they were continuing an argument through us. As Spinner had argued just how precarious the Jewish community was, Ederberg spoke about the tenuousness of Spinner’s accomplishments.

“Spinner is [modern Orthodox],” Ederberg said. “But his teachers are haredim. Spinner and his institution know that Lubavitch will probably eat them up.” As in many other communities, Chabad-Lubavitch has a growing presence in Berlin. “Lubavitch will always be cheaper and nicer and friendlier.”

Culture of remembrance

In Germany’s largest cities, memorials to the Holocaust are plentiful, from Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman’s installation at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, “Fallen Leaves,” a river of cast-iron faces that disappears into the void, to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in central Berlin. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman, the memorial is a grid of 2,700 concrete slabs that vary only in height.

As our group emerged from the memorial’s labyrinth, we saw the U.S. Embassy in front of us and to the right, a Dunkin’ Donuts.

Germany has tried to weave the memory of the Holocaust into society’s consciousness, to create a “culture of remembrance.”

“Overcoming a traumatic past involves confronting it and gaining new direction from the memory of the crimes,” writes Aleida Assmann, a professor at University of Konstanz, Germany, who studies memory as an individual, collective and cultural phenomenon.

Culture of remembrance, she writes, “subverts old patterns of national self-heroisation based exclusively on pride or suffering and also expands self-image to include elements of self-criticism.”

One day this month, a lunchtime crowd gathered at the edge of a greenspace near the Bundestag in central Berlin. With Volker Kauder, the parliamentary group leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union looking on, artist Gunter Demnig installed a Stolperstein, or “Stumbling Stone” in front of the swath of lawn where the house of Holocaust victims Hans and Ruth Gosler once stood.

Rachel Moses, the Goslers’ daughter, was the guest of honor. Both Moses and her older sister, Hannah, a friend of Anne Frank, survived the war and moved to Israel.

Among the onlookers were students from the nearby Anne Frank primary school.  How much did they understand of the ceremony they had just seen?

Eleven-year-old Peer explained, as his teacher translated to English, that the Stolperstein “project at first was only in Germany. But now we have it all over Europe.”

Some 50,000 of the cobblestone-sized brass memorials have been laid in 18 European countries for victims of Nazism.

“It was a dream for me to come to a place like this,” 12-year-old Hamidulla explained in English. “I feel proud to see this. It’s an honor to be here.”

Muslims and Israelis

“The biggest challenge for Jews today is not to be a special minority anymore,” Cilly Kugelmann, program director of the Jewish Museum of Berlin, told us.

The small Jewish community has played an outsized symbolic role in German post-war history – the Jew in the box. But with a Turkish Muslim population of 4 million, “Germany has accepted that it is an immigration country,” Kugelman said. “The Jewish community has to reposition itself as the country begins to debate the role of Islam.”

That debate includes how to respond to Muslim anti-Semitism and teaching the culture of remembrance to immigrants without roots in Germany and the Holocaust.

A panel discussion on anti-Semitism at the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth considered these questions.

“We have to be careful about using the Holocaust as a way to deal with anti-Semitism,” said Patrick Siegele, director of the Anne Frank Center. “When an incident happens in school, the first response is to go to a memorial site.”

Said Sera Choi of the ministry, “How do we get children of minorities to deal with anti-Semitism when they’re discriminated against themselves?”

Back at the Jewish Center in Frankfort, board member Leo Latasch said that outreach to the Muslim community is hampered by the Muslims’ lack of a single address. “There’s nothing like a central raat [council]. So there isn’t one line and one voice.”  

A similar informality among the Israelis who have been drawn to Berlin in recent years also confounds the official Jewish community.

“There are 20,000-25,000 Israelis in Berlin,” said Michaela Furhman, head of the political department of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the umbrella organization representing the Jewish community to the government.  “Nobody knows where they are. We have to get them involved somehow.”

But the Israelis are having none of it, and nobody knows how many Israelis are in Berlin.

“The Israeli community is not established. There are no institutions. No politics. It’s mostly creative people, building from scratch,” said Tal Alon. A native of Tel Aviv, she has lived in Berlin for six years with her husband and two children. Alon publishes the Hebrew-language Spitz bimonthly to document the sojourn of her fellow Israelis in Berlin.

As she tells it, she’s been one of the Israelis that journalists have turned to for the crop of “Israelis in Berlin” stories that appeared last year.

“This whole phenomenon is happening in the media,” she said. “It’s a buzz thing.”

Much like Israelis who moved to the United States, Berlin’s Israelis don’t fit the Jewish community mold.

“Most Israelis coming here are not looking to have their own bubble of Israel,” Alon said. They don’t want to be Germans. “They want to widen their horizons.”

That must be distressing for people like Latasch of the Frankfurt community center. The Jews of Germany have a comfortable community, thanks to their hard work and support from the government. But like the Jew in the box exhibit, the German Jewish community also needs people.

“Unfortunately we aren’t growing anymore,” Latasch said. “We are trying everything to keep the community together. Will there be enough Jews born to keep the community going? When the children go up, they go to the U.K., to Israel. You will not be able to say what this community will be like in 20 years.”

David Holzel writes for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at