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Germany's Jewish Population on the Rise


Six decades after the Holocaust, Germany's Jewish population is soaring, thanks, largely, to a flood of new Jewish immigrants from former Communist countries. Indeed, in recent years Germany has boasted the world's fastest growing Jewish population. But the immigration boom is also fueling new tensions.

By almost any benchmark, Boris Rosenthal is a German success story. Fifteen years after arriving here with his family and a few suitcases, the 48-year-old native Ukrainian juggles a teaching job with a blossoming musical career. Today, he speaks proudly in his adopted language about his new life in Berlin.

Rosenthal says he is not a typical immigrant. Unlike many newcomers, he says he identifies with the German mentality. When he came here, he says, he wanted to work immediately and be active in his new home.

There are other reasons why Rosenthal is a different kind of German immigrant. He is among an estimated 200,000 Jews from former Communist states who have flocked here in recent years. These new immigrants are known here simply as "Russian Jews" although they come from many different countries.

They took advantage of what has been a virtual open-door immigration policy by the German government, partly to atone for the Holocaust. And, says Julius Schoeps, a Jewish history professor at the University of Potsdam near Berlin, these immigrants are reviving Germany's once-minute postwar Jewish community.

"The future of this community was very bad. There was no future. The idea was to bring Jews from Russia to strengthen the Jewish community. It succeeded," he said.

Since 1990, the number of registered Jews in Germany has soared from 30,000 to nearly 106,000. That figure may double, some estimate, if those who are not formally part of the Jewish community, and therefore are not counted, are added in. In Berlin alone, there are at least seven synagogues, three Jewish schools and an array of Kosher stores and cafes. Jews here describe some latent antisemitism in Germany, but nothing very worrisome.

But the immigration boom is fueling tensions between more observant, second-and third-generation Jews and the new arrivals, who come here with a laundry list of needs and only a sketchy grasp of their religion. The newcomers guarantee a future for Judaism in Germany. But says Michael May, executive director of Berlin's Jewish community, it is unclear what kind of future that will be.

"I don't know where this community is going because I am coming from a German-Jewish background first of all because of my age, second because I have relatively elderly parents who were imbued with this German-Jewish culture and this is definitely disappearing," he said. "There are relatively few people who can continue with this tradition. And on the other hand, you have this new Russian-Jewish tradition which has come in of the 21st century, which will create its own culture...and we don't know where we'll stand in 10 or 20 years."

Such soul-searching coincides with tighter German guidelines requiring prospective immigrants to speak German and be under 45 years old. That is likely to reduce Jewish immigration to Germany. Jews here are divided over the new policy.

Rosenthal, the Ukrainian musician, believes the immigration boom is slowing anyway because of better conditions for Jews in former Soviet countries, conditions that did not exist when he left the Ukraine in 1990. At a Berlin Jewish school, where he now teaches music, Rosenthal recounts his own story.

Back in his Ukrainian home town of Lemberg, Rosenthal did not know much about his Jewish roots, except that "Jew" was stamped on his former Soviet passport as his "nationality." And that he was sometimes the butt of antisemitic jokes. He went to his first Hanukkah celebration at the end of the 1980s. Not long afterward, he had a chance to emigrate.

As a newcomer in Berlin, Rosenthal's first job was digging graves at a Jewish cemetery. But he slowly stitched back his former career as a singer and orchestra conductor. Later, he was offered his current job as a music teacher.

Other immigrants are not so lucky. Many are unemployed. Germany's smaller, more established Jewish community is struggling to meet their needs. That has caused friction between the immigrants and those born in Germany, says Irene Runge, who heads Berlin's Jewish Cultural Association.

"The Russian Jews feel they're neglected, they're humiliated. And the German Jews say they're so aggressive and they're only asking to get things, and they don't give anything," she said.

The German and Eastern European Jews also have different tastes in music, literature and fashion.

More importantly, perhaps, many immigrants like Boris Ladoniski are not particularly religious. At a cafe in Berlin, the 30-year-old Russian native talked about what it means for him to be Jewish.

"Most Jews in Russia aren't religious, and I'm not terribly religious either," he said. "But it didn't mean they didn't feel Jewish. It was a different sense of Jewishness, which was based more on the history of the family, on culture, on the stories, the songs you heard."

An uncounted number of Jewish immigrants have not joined Germany's Jewish community. Some do not the meet the community's strict definition of a Jew, that is, converting or having a Jewish mother, rather than simply having one Jewish parent, which qualifies a person as Jewish under Germany's immigration law. But Ladoniski also says that many immigrants are simply not interested in joining.

"It's increasingly a problem for my generation, because many people do not see what should be the benefit in being a member of the community," he continued. "Especially if you're in your thirties, if you have a German education and you're integrated into German society."

But some experts say this new, less-religious generation of German Jews is not necessarily a bad thing. Faith, they say, is only part of a complex set of factors shaping the future of Judaism in Germany.

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