Jews in Germany Today

The land where Hitler once ruled has a burgeoning Jewish community.

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Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma magazine's Nov. 2003 issue.

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.

Explosive Growth

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 halakhic [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.

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Wladimir Struminski is a journalist. He was born in Warsaw in 1954. In 1969 he moved to Germany and then to Israel in 1982. Since 1987 he has been the Israel correspondent for the leading German-Jewish newspaper Judische Allgemeine Wochenzeitung.