Resurgent Community in Berlin Rocked by Nasty Internal Battles

By Hinda Mandell

Published November 14, 2007, issue of November 16, 2007.
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Berlin - In most Jewish communities, communal elections are a quiet affair. But Berlin is no run-of-the-mill Jewish community.

The former capital of the Nazis is today home to some 12,000 registered Jews, many of them Russian immigrants who have arrived since the fall of the Soviet Union. The past year has seen the dedication of multimillion-dollar synagogues in Berlin, suggesting a resurgence of sorts. But the preparations for communal elections, set to take place November 25, have shown a less seemly side of the community.

The elections for the 21-member parliament of the Jewish Community of Berlin have drawn out nasty internal battles, with leaders slinging personal charges at each other. Last month, a Russian candidate called for the impeachment of the community’s president over the hiring of a security guard. One of the bitterest disputes came after the secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan Kramer, announced his intention to run for the community parliament. Other leaders questioned Kramer’s conversion to Judaism, and he dropped out of the race a few days later, citing pressure from his superiors as the reason.

“There are a lot of personalities playing power politics,” said Walter Rothschild, a Liberal rabbi in Berlin who is wrapping up a term in parliament and has said he will not run in the current elections. It’s a “dung heap,” he added.

Berlin’s Jews certainly don’t have it easy. The community is trying to cope with an influx of immigrants that has nearly doubled the size of the community at the same time that it struggles with its role as a symbol of post-Holocaust Jewish life. Communal insiders say that the elections make clear how hard it is to control these crosscurrents.

“It’s very difficult to organize politics in this community,” said Julius H. Schoeps, director of the University of Potsdam’s Moses Mendelssohn Center. Schoeps dropped out of the last elections, held four years ago, after coming under verbal assault at an election event.

“They are fighting like crazy people,” Schoeps added. “They tell others, ‘He is not Jewish; he has to leave the community.’”

The reasons for Berlin’s rancor are manifold, but many people point to the community’s rather sizable infrastructure and payroll. The Jewish Community of Berlin, or Juedische Gemeinde zu Berlin, as it is known in German, employs 383 people working in dozens of institutions, such as synagogues, cemeteries, Jewish schools and old-age homes. The Juedische Gemeinde is associated with the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which oversees Jewish matters in the country.

In Germany, self-identifying Jews, Protestants and Catholics pay a religion tax to the state: 9% of an individual’s income tax. Because many members of the Jewish community are older or unemployed, only about 300,000 euros ($438,000) comes in for the Jewish community. But the municipal government of Berlin steps in with a hefty annual subsidy. The budget totals 25 million euros ($36.5 million) this year, with 16 million ($23 million) used to cover personnel costs, according to Andre Lossin, executive director of the community.

Many disagreements boil down to money and how to spend it. Rothschild questioned whether millions of euros should be spent on refurbishing synagogues when they are rarely filled. The current deputy director of the parliament’s executive board, Arkadi Schneiderman, bristled at the notion that the community should pay money to support a kosher café and what he described as its terrible food.

An employee of the community, who asked to remain anonymous, said that people with little training are running the community’s massive infrastructure. Brandishing a half-foot thick three-ring binder containing spreadsheets and numbers, she added: “You can understand this? You have to be an expert of financial things… It’s a little empire. They are all amateurs.”

The president of the Jewish community is chosen from the parliament’s executive board by a secret ballot. For the past two years, it has been Gideon Joffe, a local business administrator. Joffe has been criticized by some for taking too much personal control. But he also has won plaudits for his efforts at standardizing the community’s activities. He has instituted regular meetings at which minutes are taken.

“He has a positive dynamic. It’s the winds of change,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a young Russian who is running for election this year.

Joffe declined requests for an interview.

Much of the struggle within the parliament has been over how to deal with the city’s sizable Russian population. In 1991, the German government granted refuge to Russian Jews — so long as they proved that one of their parents was Jewish. While the government has since tightened its immigration laws, nearly 200,000 Russians came to Germany over the past 15 years (about half of them are non-Jewish relatives of Jews). Berlin is the largest Jewish community in the country.

Lagodinsky, 31, a legal scholar who immigrated to Germany from Russia, said that the Russian community has struggled with civic engagement after coming from a society in which little existed.

“They never experienced democracy working,” Lagodinsky said of his fellow émigrés. “They think democracy means assaulting each other and trying to destroy each other. It’s a perverted view of what politics is.”

A Russian led the attacks on Kramer, who made a brief campaign for parliament.

In a community wavering in its mission, Kramer said he would have addressed challenges surrounding Jewish continuity if he were elected. In Germany, children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are barred from the community. Kramer, a convert to Judaism, said that an associated membership for individuals who have one Jewish parent would mitigate the situation. But that is all easier said than done — in Berlin, at least.

“Many people refuse to acknowledge that it’s a different Jewish world than it was 20 years ago,” said Jeffrey M. Peck, academic director of the Leo Baeck Summer University in Berlin and author of “Being Jewish in the New Germany.”

Peck added: “There needs to be more acceptance of Jewish life, like in America.… This is an opportunity, but people here see it as a problem.”

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