Concerns about Germans converting to Judaism carry resonance in land of Holocaust – The Irish Times

Posted By on September 11, 2022

In April 1945, a young British forces soldier helped liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Climbing onto a wooden crate he shouted, in Yiddish, to the living human skeleton survivors in striped uniforms before him: Jews! There are still Jews living!

That young man was Chaim Herzog, the Belfast-born and Dublin-raised politician who later became Israels sixth president.

This week his son, Isaac, Israels 11th president, used a three-day state visit to retrace his fathers footsteps back to the former Nazi camp.

History always weighs heavy on such visits, but adding even more to the burden this time was the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Munich massacre when Palestinian extremists took the Israeli Olympic team hostage.

Half a century on, Germany offered a formal apology for the bungled police response which saw 11 Israeli hostages killed in a bloody shootout. German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked for forgiveness for this and for subsequent insensitivity towards the mourning families. The Olympic Games continued without Israel, it took 45 years for a memorial and it was only last weeks 38 million compensation deal that convinced the families to travel to Munich.

In a Berlin parliament address, President Herzog praised Germany for owning up to its historical responsibility. As with Holocaust reconciliation, though, the Munich anniversary fell victim to cultural cross-purposes.

While his German hosts asked for forgiveness in the Christian tradition, Herzog recalled his fathers Bundestag address in 1987 that underlined the Jewish tradition: I bring no forgiveness, no forgetting. Only the dead have the right to forgive, the living have no right to forget.

The state visit came as two interlinked scandals rock Germanys Jewish community. The first involves Walter Homolka, one of Germanys best-known rabbis and a leading light in liberal Jewish circles.

He has stood aside as director of a rabbi training college near Berlin amid claims his husband a lecturer at the institution sent a student photos of his penis.

Claims he tried to cover up the affair, which he denies, have prompted closer scrutiny of his institution, Potsdams Abraham Geiger College. It was established in 1999 as continental Europes first training college for rabbis and cantors since the Shoah, but critics claim Homolka treats the institution as his personal fiefdom. In a statement, he said it hurt to have to read such things.

I have no influence over the behaviour of those closest to me, he wrote, nor do I want to.

Among his most outspoken critics, Berlin cantor Avitall Gerstetter said the shameful accusations were a deep blow to liberal Judaism in Germany. But now Gerstetter, a rare female face in the male-dominated world of Jewish sacred music, has delivered a blow of her own.

Writing in Die Welt daily, she said a wave of Germans converting in the last 30 years meant, in some communities, 80 per cent of those now attending services were not Jewish by birth including many rabbis and cantors. A new soulless Judaism is emerging that that was less about experience and tradition, she argued, than a theoretical Judaism, almost an entirely new religion.

In some services I feel more reminded of an interreligious event than of the visit to the synagogue I have been familiar with since childhood, she wrote.

Her most controversial claim: some Germans are converting as a bizarre form of reparation and a wish to be allowed to switch to the other side from the perpetrators family to a new, Jewish family construct.

Gerstetters article landed like a grenade in her synagogue on Berlins Oranienburger Strasse.

Its rabbi, Gesa Ederberg, who converted to Judaism in 1995 and was ordained in 2003, said she and the community members were flabbergasted by the claims.

They issued a statement insisting that all worshippers are welcome, whether Jewish-born or converted and then fired Gerstetter. The cantor, whose father was a convert, has hired a lawyer to challenge her dismissal.

Fears of dilution of Jewish identity and religious practice, though not unique to Germany, have particular resonance in the land of the Holocaust.

In the early 1990s, new arrivals from the Soviet Union not all of whom could prove they were Jewish were accused by locals of reshaping the struggling German communities they had helped save.

Some in Berlin Jewish circles say Avitall Gerstetter has merely said in public albeit somewhat undiplomatically what many here feel in private. For German-British rabbi Walter Rotschild, the controversy around Walter Homolka another convert had been the final straw.

The converts are telling Jews what they should think, how they should pray, that they should practise as they do, he said.

But there has been energetic pushback, too, against the cantors claims from converts.

One unnamed woman from Frankfurt, who converted in 1996 aged 31, wrote to Die Welt accusing the cantor of reviving 19th-century bourgeois salon anti-Semitism. She likened her experience to trans people with mismatched sexual identities and biological sex.

I am a trans-Jew, she wrote. I didnt convert, I merely made public my true identity.

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Concerns about Germans converting to Judaism carry resonance in land of Holocaust - The Irish Times

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