Germany's new female rabbi sign of growing Jewish community

Media caption,
For the first time since 1935, Germany will ordain a female rabbi at a ceremony in Berlin on Thursday.

History is being made in Germany with the ordination of the first female rabbi since World War II. Alina Treiger came to Germany from Ukraine, as the BBC's Stephen Evans reports from Berlin.

Why would a Jew migrate to Germany? You would think the ghosts would be too powerful.

Not so, according to those who have made the trip and those who welcomed them.

They are migrating for the main reasons that people in peaceful times pack their bags and seek a new start in a new country: money and work.

And that means work for those who serve them when they arrive - like rabbis, the demand for whom has expanded with the increase in Germany's Jewish communities.

It has led to a bit of history: the ordination of the first female rabbi in Germany since the Nazis killed the previous one in the Holocaust.

Alina Treiger is to be ordained at a ceremony in Berlin attended by rabbis from around the world and by the President of Germany.

She is unassuming but assured, speaking quietly but firmly about her role and about its significance.

"It is very important to deal with mourning the dead", she told the BBC when asked about how the Holocaust haunts Jewish (and non-Jewish) Germany today.

"But it's also important to step towards the future and not be blinded by negative historical experience."

She is aware that she follows in the footsteps of Germany's only previous female rabbi.

"Her name was Regina Jonas. She grew up in Berlin and studied in Germany and she was forgotten for a long time," says Ms Treiger.

"She was murdered in Auschwitz."

Liberal Judaism

Alina and Regina - Frau Treiger and Frau Jonas - have much in common but also much that differentiates them.

The obvious difference is the times in which they lived.

Regina was ordained in 1935 and was deported to the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt in 1942.

She was then transported to Auschwitz and murdered two years later at the end 1944.

But the first woman rabbi also lived in times with different attitudes towards women.

Image caption,
Regina Jonas was ordained in 1935 but restricted largely to teaching religion

Alina Treiger today will have all the rights of a male rabbi. Regina Jonas, in contrast, was restricted in her ceremonial duties, confined largely to teaching religion.

The reason for the great gap between 1935 and today's ordination is the Holocaust.

Liberal Judaism, which recognised the right of women to be rabbis, started in Germany but flourished in America after the near destruction of Jewish life in Germany.

The first woman rabbi was ordained in America in 1972, but it has taken longer in Germany, perhaps because of the different attitudes towards women.

The impetus now comes from the rising demand for rabbis as Jewish communities swell across the country.

Rabbi Walter Hommulka, the rector of Germany's only seminary for training rabbis, said that the few Jews who remained in Germany after the Holocaust felt out of place.

Only in recent years have communities grown because of immigration.

"After World War II, people were stranded here, and it took a long time before they really embraced the notion that they will stay in Germany. People always thought 'I'm not here continually. I'm preparing to go to Israel.' But they didn't," said Rabbi Hommulka.

"In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, 200,000 Russian Jews came here because they thought that this was the land of milk and honey."

And he says that Germany has been good to Jews.

"Successful integration here means that you are taking the best chances of your host country, and Jews here have done that. We have learnt the language. You have to be willing to make it in the society that you are entering.

"The success story of Jewish integration in the 19th Century and now is a ruling in the Jewish code which says that the law of the land takes precedence over religious law."

But that clause did not do Jews any good when Hitler came along.


So what about the ghosts of the Holocaust?

"We appreciate that the German government is making every effort to remind itself," said Rabbi Hommulka.

"And this is why we are confident to move on. We wouldn't be so confident if Germany was 'self-forgetting'."

Alina Treiger echoes that. She says she feels less anti-Semitism in Germany than she did in Ukraine.

She said that when anti-Jewish attacks take place in Germany the authorities take it seriously, unlike in Ukraine.

She was born there in 1979. Her father found himself shut out of good jobs because of his Jewishness so Alina became very aware of her own Jewish roots.

But she also felt stifled by the strong Orthodox Jewish community in her home town.

So she packed her suitcase and headed west to Germany, unable to speak German and with no material prospects apart from a welcome from Jewish communities.

"When I came to Germany I came to a Jewish community and to Germany and I see that it is possible to live a Jewish life here."

Five years of study later, she is making history with her ordination and her new post as a rabbi in Oldenburg in the north-west corner of the country.

"I didn't choose this job," she says. "It chose me."

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