While the Jewish population in nearly all countries of the Diaspora declines, the Jewish population in Germany boasts an unprecedented boom. In the past 15 years [since about 1988], the number of Jews in that country roughly tripled, to reach an estimated 150,000. This would make Germany the home of the fourth-largest Jewish community in Europe.
Note: Since this article was initially published, the Jewish population in Germany has grown, with many Jews from the former Soviet Union settling there, along with a growing Israeli expatriate community. For more on Jewish life in Germany today, visit our partner site JTA.
In the 1950s, the Jewish population in Germany had been estimated at a mere 20,000. While a small number of Jews preferred to settle in Communist East Germany, the vast majority chose to live in the Western part of the country. In the shadow of the Holocaust, Jewish life on German soil did not appear self-evident. A large share of the Jews preferred to think of their stay in the Federal Republic as temporary. “We will move to Israel soon,” was the mantra of the day.
In reality, this rarely happened. Rather, the Jewish population kept growing, as Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe. By the 1980s, the Jewish communities had some 30,000 registered members, while the total number of Jews was estimated at 40,000 to 50,000. (In Germany, the local Jewish communities are public-law corporations with known membership. Not all Jews, however, chose to become community members.)
Not less significantly, in the course of time, the mood of the “Jewish street” changed. The notion of Germany as a permanent home for its Jews, rather than a fading episode, became more and more the accepted norm. This change of attitude reflected acclimatization and the increased weight of a postwar generation born or raised in the country as well as a growing trust in Germany’s willingness to learn from its past.
The 1990s brought about massive emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union (FSU). Despite the fall of the Soviet regime, the German government agreed to recognize Jews from the FSU as refugees, granting them residence and work permits as well as social rights. Thus, the way was paved for 250,000 immigrants, so far. Due to a significant proportion of non-Jewish family members, the actual number of Jewish immigrants is lower.
Who Is A Jew?
Furthermore, the German government’s criteria for the recognition of Jewish refugees do not follow halachic [Jewish legal] rules. Rather, children of at least one Jewish parent, mother or father, are eligible under the program. [The Reform and Reconstructionist movements likewise accept this definition, while the Orthodox and Conservative movements follow traditional Jewish law in saying that religious identity is inherited through the mother only.]
Yet the Jewish communities in Germany, being religious bodies, cannot grant membership to persons–immigrants or otherwise–who do not meet the criteria of Jewish law. All told, the communities have 100,000 registered members today. The number of Jews not belonging to a community is roughly estimated at another 50,000.
Jewish emigration from the former Soviet republics continues. In the coming years, some 10,000 people per year are expected to make Germany their new home under the Jewish refugee program. The influx has dramatically strengthened Jewish life. Today, 83,000 of the registered community members are post-Soviet arrivals. In other words: Without the immigrants, the number of registered Jews would have dwindled to just 17,000.
At the same time, the wave of immigration created a formidable challenge. Most immigrants have joined the Jewish communities. Indeed, the wave of immigration enabled the creation of new communities in a number of cities, like Rostock, Cottbus, or Frankfurt on the Oder in East Germany. The new members’ links to Judaism, however, are often tenuous at best. For this reason, the communities invest large amounts of energy and money not just in an expanded physical infrastructure but in Jewish education and fostering Jewish consciousness as well. This effort will continue for years to come.
For their part, German authorities extend moral and financial support for the integration effort at the federal, state, and local levels. In early 2003, the federal government signed a state treaty with the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the highest Jewish representative body, pledging annual assistance of three million Euros (3.3 million dollars), in part to support the integration of Jewish immigrants.
Until now, the “Russian” majority has not attained full political representation in the governing bodies of local communities and Jewish organizations at state and federal levels. Given the fact that the communities are democratically ruled and choose their boards on the one-member-one-vote basis, growing “Russian” representation is a matter of organization and time.
Tensions between “old-timers” and “Russians” exist, resulting, among other things, in a debate over whether Russian should become an official language of the communities. In practice, of course, the use of Russian in the communities, including their publications, is widespread. The Jewish leadership is determined to foster immigration and keep those already in the country within the community framework. Also, for the young generation, linguistic and cultural integration is easier than for their parents or grandparents.
In the longer term, the main question focuses on the community’s identity. A central question is, to what extent will the enlarged Jewish population ensure its continuity by establishing Jewish families and passing on Jewish tradition?
Another issue is Jewish identity in relation to German society. As in most European countries, German national identity is predominantly ethnic. For minorities, this makes full identification with the country of their residence more difficult. So do expressions of xenophobia, even though Germany by no means leads the European field in this respect. For Jews, obviously, the history of the Holocaust remains an additional barrier and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
However, many Germans are striving to expand their national identity beyond ethnic boundaries. The process of European unification changes mindsets, too. Such developments in German society are likely to contribute, with time, to a Jewish sense of belonging. How fast and in what form this happens, remains to be seen.
Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma magazine’s Nov. 2003 issue.