Germany’s Largest Jewish Organization Is at the ‘Edge of Chaos’
Germany’s largest Jewish communal organization, the Berlin Juedische Gemeinde, is nearly dysfunctional.
“We are at the edge of chaos,” said Rabbi Josh Spinner, executive vice president and CEO in Berlin of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “All the world’s Jews should care about this.”
Claudia Keller, writing in the respected newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, observed that “the situation in the Jewish community has reached an unprecedented low point.”
At the center of the controversy crippling the Gemeinde is its president, Gideon Joffe, an Israeli immigrant to Germany whose background and style of leadership reflect a broader, seismic demographic shift in the historic face of German Jewry.
Joffe, who speaks fluent Russian, came to Germany as a small child with his family from Israel, where he was born in 1972. His parents, who came originally from Latvia, in what was then the Soviet Union, arrived ahead of a wave of Jews from that country. The Russian immigration, along with the arrival of thousands of Israelis, has since radically transformed a historic community devastated by the Holocaust.
According to longtime observers, the deteriorating situation enveloping Berlin’s organized Jewish community renders Jews a diminished force in Germany and damages their influence. With firsthand memories of the Holocaust fading in the rearview mirror, Spinner fears that the internal strife and negative media accounts will ultimately erode Germany’s commitment to issues of Jewish concern.
The main surge of Russian Jews began in the early 1990s, when the gates of the Former Soviet Union opened up, allowing them to emigrate freely. Germany welcomed them, as it did the Israelis, seeing in their immigration an opportunity to rebuild a viable Jewish community. This, the Germans believed, would manifest their country’s determination to make amends for the mass slaughter that decimated Germany’s flourishing pre-Nazi era Jewish population of more than 500,000.
Today, some 120,000 Jews live in Germany. This compares with an estimated 25,000, consisting of survivors and displaced Jews from elsewhere, after World War II. But the legendary stereotype of Germany’s punctilious Jewish community, one steeped in German culture, history and propriety, as evoked by the slang term “yekke,” is a thing of the past.
Joffe’s leadership and the responses it has provoked project an implicit contrast with this image. His tenure has included, among other things, a heated debate over secretive financial transactions that climaxed in fisticuffs at a May 23 meeting, to which the police were summoned. A chorus of critics has condemned Joffe for lack of transparency, citing his failure to disclose the use of community property as collateral for a loan.
Other critics have complained about incompetent management, neglected maintenance and low salaries at Jewish schools.
The Gemeinde is also in a court fight with the city of Berlin, its largest benefactor. According to Guenter Kolodziej, spokesman for cultural affairs for the Berlin Senate, the governing body of the city-state, the city subsidizes between 60% and 80% of the Gemeinde’s operating budget. The government initiated court action after the Gemeinde refused to supply information that the city requested about the community’s employees, which number more than 300. This information is critical for the city in calculating the Gemeinde’s annual budget.
The Gemeinde also owes the city of Berlin millions of euros because of pension miscalculations that go back decades. Joffe has been uncooperative in working out an agreement with the government to address this problem.
“The Juedische Gemeinde must repay those debts to the city that have been accumulated due to inappropriate spending on pensions,” Kolodziej said. “We want the Juedische Gemeinde to grow and flourish; however, we can’t tolerate mismanagement. Right now we are in the process of auditing, and some issues are under litigation.”
Joffe has declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. Still, for all the controversy surrounding his leadership, he retains the support of the Russian Jews who now make up the majority of the Gemeinde’s membership.
There are about 11,000 registered members of Berlin’s Juedische Gemeinde, which under the German system is a legal entity with taxing authority. While the exact number of Jews living in Berlin is not known, those who choose to register with the Gemeinde represent only a portion of the total number.
Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, estimates that only half of Berlin’s Jews with German citizenship affiliated with the Gemeinde and that the number of Berlin Jews is closer to 25,000. Separately, there are 18,000 Israeli Jews living in Berlin, according to AJC estimates. The Israeli Embassy estimates this number to be 13,000. When Israelis are included, Berlin’s Jewish population is estimated to be between 40,000 and 50,000, according to AJC figures. The vast majority of the Israelis have no connection with the Gemeinde.
Today, Berlin’s einheit gemeinde, or unified community, has become predominantly Russian. And with the addition of the Israelis, Jewish life has become more diverse. It’s a much bigger community, as the German government had hoped. But some question the continued viability of the big-tent concept. Many Jews are totally disconnected from the Gemeinde.
“It has become completely irrelevant,” Cilly Kugelmann said, describing the Gemeinde. Kugelmann, who chooses not to affiliate with the Gemeinde, is the program director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum.
Sergey Lagodinsky, a lawyer of Russian background who is part of the Gemeinde’s 21-member representative assembly, described the organization as “a bureaucratic, dusty operation that is not welcoming.” He added that it is disconnected from Berlin’s Jewish youth, who are essential to the organization’s future.
Lagodinsky blames the current Gemeinde leadership for the deteriorating situation. He sees the leadership as dismissive of democratic values, unprofessional and incapable of competent management.
Still, Lagodinsky believes that the Gemeinde and the concept of a unified community must be preserved. Like Spinner, he sees the unified community as necessary if Jews are to retain influence with the German government. He opposes any dissolution of the community that would undermine and weaken this unified voice.
Lagodinsky is heading an effort to unseat Joffe. A petition drive for a new election to replace Joffe is currently under way.
Most of those interviewed by the Forward were critical of Joffe and considered him a significant factor in the crisis the community faces.
“I don’t think he has a clue how to carry on,” Dr. Jochen Palenker said over coffee at the Kuchenkaiser cafe, in the working-class district of Kreuzberg. Palenker, whose German Jewish ancestral roots are deep, is a former member of the Gemeinde board and is fairly representative of the old guard.
But Yehuda Teichtal, director of the Chabad in Berlin, disputes allegations that the Gemeinde is dysfunctional. “My own experience has been that whenever I ask the Gemeinde for assistance, I get it,” Teichtal said during an interview with the Forward. He also said, however, that Joffe “is a hard man to reach.” Teichtal, who hails from Brooklyn, has been in Berlin since 1996.
In the view of Alexander Brenner, a member of the Gemeinde’s parliament, Joffe’s victory in the most recent election should give the dissenters pause. “He was elected democratically with a big majority,” said Brenner. “It’s not very good for the community to continually attack him.”
The Juedische Gemeinde supports a variety of institutions that include synagogues of different denominations, cemeteries, two schools, a nursing home, two retirement homes, a hospital and a youth center. An annual subsidy from the City of Berlin makes this possible, along with the government-authorized religious tax that all officially recognized religious communities in Germany are entitled to levy on their members. The city’s subsidy varies annually but has amounted to more than $24 million in each of the past two years. The religious tax that the Gemeinde levies on its membership amounts to 9% of a member’s income tax.
Many of the older Russian members don’t pay this tax because they are unemployed or live on small pensions. Without the additional Berlin subsidy, the Gemeinde couldn’t exist, because the religious tax does not support the services the community provides.
The German national government also pays $13.5 million annually to the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which represents all German Jewish communities.
Although all officially recognized religious organizations in Germany benefit from the religious tax, the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the local Jewish Gemeindes are the only religious organizations that receive direct government subsidies, whether at the local or the national levels.
Hubertus Rybak, head of the Division of Church and Religious Communities at the Ministry of the Interior, said this subsidy reflects the German government’s acknowledgement of a special responsibility for sustaining Jewish life in Germany, given the Holocaust.
But in an email interview with the Forward, Christian Boehme, an editor at Der Tagesspiegel, predicted that the community’s “already tarnished image will be even more marred by incidents like the [fistfights at its] meeting in May.” For outsiders, he said, the Jewish community appears to be an institution “that excels at internal conflicts. Those conflicts often deal with money, and that might strengthen existing prejudices.”
Julius Schoeps, a leading German Jewish intellectual, argued that it would be better to cut off the Gemeinde’s government subsidy and force a complete makeover from the bottom up.
“The state gives the Gemeinde too much money,” Schoeps said during an interview at his office in Potsdam. “After 1945, German politicians needed Jews here as a sign that the new Germany is a democracy. Therefore they gave money, money, money.”
Schoeps said he has friends in the Berlin Senate who describe the situation at the Gemeinde as “horrible.” Still, he said, they will not cut the subsidy, because such action would be seen as anti-Semitic.
“I left the community because of people like Joffe,” said Schoeps, who is the director of the Moses-Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies and professor emeritus of German-Jewish history at Potsdam University.
Schoeps described a staggering cultural cleavage between the community’s Russian majority and the smattering of remaining German and Polish Jews. They have different memories, different histories, different traditions, he said.
Jews raised in the Soviet Union were accustomed to a pervasive government presence that smothered personal initiative. They had no background in civic democracy and were accustomed to a culture in which people often used unsavory means to circumvent the system.
“It was the antithesis of the competitive German society,” said Schoeps.
It was also a secular society that condemned any form of religious expression. According to Olaf Glockner, a researcher at the Moses-Mendelssohn Center, only 10% of the Russian immigrants are religious. Most of the immigrants have no connection to their Jewish roots.
Glockner’s research found that a large number of first-generation immigrants are either unemployed or retired on very low incomes. Though many are well educated, they have been unable to find work in their former professions, with language often a barrier.
But the younger generation of immigrants, Glockner found, is not in need of the same degree of social and psychological support as the older generation. “They have their own dynamic networks,” he reported.
The future of Jewish life in Germany rests in the hands of this younger generation. Will those Jews reconnect with their roots, or will they completely assimilate? And if they reconnect, will they be inclined to transform the Gemeinde?
Berlin’s Chabad Lubavitch center and the Lauder Foundation’s Rykestrasse Synagogue, while connected to the Gemeinde, do not depend on it for their existences. Both have their own independent sources of funding. And both are experiencing a robust growth as they attract a healthy number of Jewish young people.
This vibrant Jewish life in Berlin outside the Gemeinde is also evidenced among the estimated 13,000 to 18,000 Israelis who live in the city.
Nirit Bialer, 35, and Michal Zamir, 39, two Israeli women interviewed at Sababa, a small Middle Eastern restaurant in an Israeli neighborhood in the Prenzlauer Berg district of former East Berlin, extolled life in Berlin.
“It’s cheap, it’s cool and we have such a large international community here,” Bialer said. “It’s a fun city. Israelis want to be where the hype is.”
“Israel has less possibilities for young people,” Zamir said.
Many of the Israelis in Berlin are young artists with left-wing views. Zamir said a number of these Israelis have political reasons for living abroad. They do not want to live in Israel with feelings of guilt over “what the government is doing in our name.”
Although most of the Israelis are secular and not interested in religious services, Zamir and her family attend the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, a small and vibrant congregation with an egalitarian, but traditional, service that’s conducted mostly in Hebrew. The congregation, one of those funded by the Gemeinde, occupies space in the restored domed building that was once the Neues, or New, Synagogue, one of the most famous synagogues in Germany before World War II. The Gemeinde’s administrative offices are also located in this building, as is a museum.
“We are here, the Jewish community is blossoming and we are doing wonderful things,” said Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, spiritual leader of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, during an interview. “Our presence shows Hitler hasn’t won.”
Ederberg stressed that she was referring to the vibrant Jewish presence in Germany — not to the deteriorating Gemeinde. Meanwhile, she must live with the reality that it is the deeply riven Gemeinde that funds her synagogue.
Contact Donald Snyder at [email protected]