2006-12-15 Kirsten Rulf
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Rabbis revitalize Germany's Jewish Communities

Rabbi Tom Kucera during his ordinationRabbi Tom Kucera during his ordination
The Nazi regime and the atrocities of World War II almost wiped out Jewish life in Germany. But, the number of Jews has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s, mainly a result of many Jews from the former Soviet Union moving to Germany. Comprehensive education for rabbis is once again available in Germany. This year, for the first time since the war, three Rabbis were ordained in Dresden. Germany's Jewish communities are awakening to new life. Kirsten Rulf visited one of them as he settled into his new job.

Tom Kucera, a 36-year-old Czech, is the new Zatim, Vacrabbi at the Jewish community Beth Shalom in Munich. Kucera is the first rabbi educated and ordained in Germany since the end of World War II. He says this historical significance is difficult to grasp.

"For me it's much more personal, and I still have to think what does it mean to me to be a rabbi. So I see this importance not as historical, but on a personal level and that's what is amazing for me. Also it's a lot of responsibility for what I do and what I do in the future."

After services marking the beginning of Sabbath, everybody gathers around a table, chatting and eating the traditional Sabbath dinner. The women have brought nut cake, fresh honeydew melon and falafel. Since Kucera became their rabbi, Beth Shalom members say community life has changed.

Anual meeting at Abraham-Geiger-College in BerlinAnual meeting at Abraham-Geiger-College in Berlin
"I think the youth work has changed. Tom Kucera has obviously hit a nerve and attracts young people who have not been integrated into our community before. I think they enjoy the lessons with him and as a result, they attend services more often."

"Of course, there were discussions. The new rabbi changed the songs we sing. So elderly people missed their favorite songs and couldn't sing along anymore. As a result, they argued with him and some don't attend the services anymore. Also, the service has become more stringent. It is more demanding, but it's not bad. In fact, I like it a lot this way."

These changes may well be the result of Kucera's comprehensive education at the Abraham-Geiger-College in Berlin. Founded in 1999, it's one of only three institutions in Europe which educate rabbis. And it combines academic study with the practical aspects of being a rabbi, like giving psychological support. Rabbi Walter Homolka is the director.

"We would like to see that people have already had previous training in another area so as to give them more exposure to the realities of modern life. Of course pastoral skills are necessary, the ability to modesty, to step back and moderate processes rather than just lead, but of course leadership skills are also necessary. So the whole range of abilities."

Given Germany's anti-Semitic past, choosing Berlin for a rabbinical College was highly controversial. Though it has its advantages, for example, university education is basically free in Germany. But many Jews were opposed to the idea of a rabbinical College being located here. Homolka says a Dutch rabbi even accused the initiators of disgracing Jewish culture by establishing such an institution on the ashes of six million murdered Jews.

Main synagogue of Munich was destroyed on Hitler's personal order in 1938Main synagogue of Munich was destroyed on Hitler's personal order in 1938
"The only response possible was that really this is a new Germany. It is a tremendous success to be able to have a Jewish environment again where indigenous rabbis can be trained. We produce, I say, some of the best ambassadors of the modern Germany, because all our students go back and they will talk about their experience in modern Germany and this is a great advantage for Germany and its image abroad within the world."

Rabbi Kucera also felt uneasy at first about going to Berlin. He says he had to get used to living in Germany as a Jew.

"But basically past is one thing and we have to remember the past, but we have to be living in the future, we have to be more thinking of the future."

But neither the Abraham-Geiger-College nor the Beth Shalom community have their addresses published on public registers -- they are afraid of anti-Semitic violence. Some community members say they've been attacked with glass bottles by neo-nazis in Munich's city-center. And during Sabbath services, a police car with two officers patrols in front of the Beth Shalom community house.

Beth Shalom means house of peace. For the new rabbi, songs and music play an important role in community life, especially because he wants to attract more young people. He hopes that some of them will one day step into his shoes and become rabbis too. The founding of the Abraham-Geiger-College and Kucera's ordination represent a great step forward for Germany's Jews. And a fresh generation of rabbis might well mark the beginning of a new period of Jewish life in Germany.

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