Inner Rift Among Germany's Jews

Last month in Berlin, a rift in Germany's Jewish population burst into visibility.

Albert Meyer, the former chairman of the Jewish Community of Berlin, announced his intention to form a new congregation. The Community has been the center point of Jewish life in Berlin for much of the last half century. Now many German-born Jews, like Meyer, no longer feel welcome there.

Meyer, a lawyer whose family has lived in Germany for generations, resigned as chairman of the Community in 2005. He claims that the Community's vice president pressured him to resign by threatening to make criminal allegations against him.

Whatever the circumstances of Meyer's departure, the balance of power in the Jewish Community has shifted.

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe are rapidly gaining control. Currently, of the board's five members, four are from the former Soviet Union; of the Community's 12,000 members, 8,000 speak Russian before German, if they speak German at all.

This pattern is not limited to Berlin. Germany's Jewish population is the fastest growing in the world. In 1990, the German government, in an effort to amend the legacy of the Holocaust, offered Jews in the former Soviet Union the chance to immigrate with significantly few restrictions.

Germany proved to be an appealing destination, at least in part because of the available financial support. The German government provides the country's Jewish organizations with substantial subsidies. Every year, for instance, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the umbrella organization for Germany's local Jewish communities, receives 3 million euros from the government.

In 1990 there were only 23,000 Jews in Germany. Many among them are now ambivalent about their 200,000 Russian-speaking counterparts.

Julius Schoeps, a prominent historian, left the Berlin Community last year and has since joined with Meyer. "Former members, we feel it's not our Community anymore," he said. "We are members of a synagogue community. The new members are members of a Russian cultural club."

Clearly, the problem is not just about language. In the small group of Jews whose families lived in Germany after the Holocaust, many consider themselves to be Jewish first and German second. The immigrants from the former Soviet Union, however, have had little or no experience with Judaism.

"People come to Germany, and they're told they have to be religious in the German tradition," said Irene Runge, the president of the Jewish Cultural Center in Berlin. "The Russians have a different understanding of what it means to be Jewish. They are political people, intellectuals."

Runge has an interesting background. She was born in Brooklyn and raised in East Berlin. An original proponent of the Russian Jewish migration, she attributes the divide largely to the rigid mind-set of the traditionalist German Jews. As she views it, most reject the Russian model of Judaism without making any effort to understand it.

"The German idea is to repeat the past, but it's the wrong concept," Runge said, referencing German Jewish traditionalism. "History has its own logic."

Several prominent members of the German-born Jewish community are apparently unhappy with the direction history has taken. According to Meyer, negotiations were held last year with the German government to halt the influx of Russian immigrants. Though these discussions were not made public, they were the likely catalyst for a drastic change in immigration policy. A point system is now in place requiring immigrants to have a basic knowledge of the German language and more solid proof of Jewish ancestry.

Still, the new policy cannot change the fact that German Jewish identity has broadened over the last 17 years.

What all this means with regards to the place of the Holocaust in modern-day German culture is not yet clear.

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, believes that the change has significance for all Germans. "This is not just a Jewish issue," he said. "Germans have been asking since the end of the war, 'when will we be normal again?' Now they might ask, if Jews are coming here, does that mean we're normal again?'"

The implications for the German Jewish place in the wider European context are similarly veiled.

"The German Jewish voice will be heard and listened to more -- and that voice will have an increasingly Slavic accent," Harris said. "What that voice will be saying remains to be seen."