Germany Appoints First Military Rabbi in Nearly a Century

Rabbi Zsolt Balla will supervise pastoral care for the estimated 300 Jewish soldiers currently serving in Germany's military

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Rabbi Zsolt Balla stands on the sidelines of a synagogue in Saxony, Germany, in 2019.
Rabbi Zsolt Balla stands on the sidelines of a synagogue in Saxony, Germany, in 2019. Credit: SEBASTIAN KAHNERT / dpa Picture-Alliance via AFP

Nearly nine decades after Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler purged the German army of Jews, the Bundeswehr is set to reestablish a military rabbinate under the authority of incoming military Chief Rabbi Zsolt Balla, the Federal Defense Ministry announced on Friday.

Balla, a 42-year old Hungarian-born Orthodox rabbi will serve as Militärbundesrabbiner, or Federal military rabbi, supervising pastoral care for the estimated 300 Jewish soldiers currently in service. He will be officially inducted into the military during a ceremony on June 21 and will be followed by additional military rabbis.

In 2019, Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews, demanded the appointment of a military rabbi in an op-ed published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, writing that it was “time to reestablish a Jewish military chaplaincy in the Bundeswehr and thus to tie in with an old tradition.”

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer agreed and the following year, the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, voted unanimously to allow rabbis to serve as chaplains alongside their Christian counterparts.

According to the National Library of Israel, during the First World War, around 100,000 Jews, including such notable figures as theologian Leo Baeck, served in the Imperial German Army. 12,000 of them were killed in action and tens of thousands received decorations or commendations. Despite this, there was widespread suspicion among German nationalists that Jews were avoiding military service, leading the High Command to order a Judenzählung, or Jewish count. When the Nazis took power in 1933, Jewish soldiers and chaplains were expelled from the military.

"With the establishment of the Jewish military pastoral care, we are providing important support for our soldiers of the Jewish faith and are setting a strong example for a diverse and open Bundeswehr,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said in a statement. 

“The introduction of Jewish military pastoral care should also be understood as a contribution [to the struggle] against growing anti-Semitism, extremism and populism in society.”

FILE Photo: Recruits of German armed forces Bundeswehr take part in a swearing-in ceremony at the Reichstag in Berlin.Credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Antisemitism and far-right extremism have been on the rise in Germany in recent years and many extremist groups have been reported to have ties to the German military, politicians or police force.

Last January, German newspaper Welt Am Sonntag revealed that over 500 German Bundeswehr soldiers were being investigated for having ties to the far right. Among these cases, 360 - a vast majority - were discovered in 2019. Not long after, the German daily Die Welt reported that over 100 guns had disappeared from various security agency branches over the past decade. Among the lost weapons, 58 went missing from the Bundeswehr.

According to the defense ministry, Balla and other military rabbis will be tasked with providing spiritual assistance to soldiers of all denominations, “go on missions abroad and deliver [ethics] lessons for all soldiers.”

The Central Council, which had pushed Balla’s candidacy, welcomed the news of his appointment, with Schuster declaring that it marked “a historic day for the Jewish community in Germany.”

Balla, a father of three, was born in Budapest in 1979 and moved to Germany in 2002. A trained engineer, he was educated in yeshivas in Germany and Israel, including the Hildesheim Orthodox Rabbinical Seminar in Berlin. In 2009, he was one of the first two orthodox rabbis to be ordained in Germany since the Second World War and went on to serve as spiritual leader of the Israelite Religious Community of Leipzig and the State Rabbi of Leipzig. As a member of the Orthodoxe Rabbinerkonferenz (Orthodox Rabbinical Conference), he was tasked with dealing with issues relating to Jewish service members, which gave him experience relevant to his new position.

Following the reestablishment of the German military in the years after the Holocaust, Jews were exempted from military service. As Schuster wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine in 2019: “After the crimes of the Wehrmacht and their participation in the Shoah, hardly any Jew could imagine doing service in a German army.”

However, this has, in large part, changed in recent decades and the Bundeswehr is largely seen as a force for democracy and human rights.

Speaking with Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon in 2019, Balla said that Germany was now on the “right side of history,” declaring that “a lot has changed in the last 70 years.”

“I know soldiers who are allowed to not work on Saturdays and holidays because they observe the Jewish tradition,” he said. 

Pinchas Goldschmidt, head of the Conference of European Rabbis, said: "To see a rabbi in a German Army uniform again takes time to get used to... but it is part of the wider picture of seeing children with Yarmulkes cycling down the Ku'damm and a Menorah being lighted at the Brandenburg Gate."

JTA contributed to this report.

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