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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Rabbi ordinations signal Jewish tension
By Jan Repa
BBC Europe analyst

A cameraman films the entrance of Dresden's New Synagogue, where rabbis are to be ordained.
Germany now has Europe's third largest Jewish community
Three rabbis have been ordained in Germany - the first such event since Germany's once-flourishing Jewish community was all but wiped out by the Nazi regime.

The German press has described the ordinations as a "miracle".

However, the new rabbis are all graduates of a new Reform Jewish college in Dresden - and their ordination highlights the tensions that exist between "progressives" and "traditionalists" within what is now Europe's third-largest Jewish community.

The Abraham Geiger College was established in 2002 in response to the rapid rise in the number of Jews now resident in Germany.

It proclaims itself part of a worldwide movement for "progressive Judaism".

Abraham Geiger was one of a number of 19th-Century German rabbis, who sought to integrate the previously segregated Jewish community into German society.

This involved:

  • Replacing Hebrew with German as the language of worship

  • Adopting "Christian" practices like sermons and hymn-singing

  • Abandoning the doctrine of the Chosen People

  • Promoting Judaism as an evolving religion based on a combination of faith and natural reason - rather than as a divinely ordained set of dogmas and rituals

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, there were 600,000 Jews in Germany.

By the end of World War II, there was a tiny remnant - reinforced by mainly traditionalist Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe.

Today, there are an estimated 200,000 - just over half of whom are registered as part of the Jewish community.

Half are recent immigrants from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union - whose exposure to traditional Jewish culture and religion is often minimal or non-existent.

It is these people the Abraham Geiger College is particularly keen to access.

Rebirth

The resulting tensions have come close to splitting Germany's Jewish community.

There is very little real connection between the apparently assimilated German Jews of the early 20th Century and many of today's new arrivals

The established Central Council of Jews in Germany has been responsible, among other things, for channelling German government subsidies to the Jewish community.

On the other side is the Union of Progressive Jews - founded in 1997.

Only last year did the Central Council recognise the Abraham Geiger College as a bona-fide Jewish institution.

Delivering the sermon at Thursday's ordination was British Reform Jewish rabbi, Julia Neuberger, whose grandparents fled Nazi Germany, and who still describes herself as a German Jew.

Reform Judaism, she says, was born in Germany - which is what makes its current rebirth there so remarkable.

Others, however, point out that there is very little real connection between the apparently assimilated German Jews of the early 20th Century, with their rather self-conscious German nationalism and devotion to German high culture - often extending to a contempt for non-German Jews - and many of today's new arrivals, who, in the eyes of local Germans, are often indistinguishable from other "Russian" immigrants.


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