Germany's Orthodox Jews Outraged at Government 'Discrimination'

Berlin rabbis furious over government decision to fund Liberal Jewish institution - but not its Orthodox equivalent.

Ze'ev Avrahami
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Ze'ev Avrahami

BERLIN – In a week that has seen German headlines dominated by the theme of Muslim integration, a split has also emerged between the government and the country's Orthodox Jews.

Behind the dispute is a demand by the Berlin Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary for an increase in state funds to match financing granted to Liberal Jewish Rabbis.

Orthodox Jews celebrate Sukkhot in Berlin, Sept. 22, 2010Credit: AP

Founded in 1873, the Orthodox seminary survived in the German capital until 1938, when it was shut down by the Nazis. For nearly seven decades, Orthodox rabbis could not qualify in Berlin – until studies began again in 2005, with the seminary officially reopening in 2009, ordaining its first two rabbis the same year.

Since its reestablishment, the seminary has been funded by donations through the Central Council of Jews in Germany and private donors through the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, a charity.

But now the seminary is demanding state budget allocations along the lines of those granted to its Liberal counterparts and has threatened to shut unless the government supplies the money.

The previous interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, had publicly praised the seminary, calling it a vital contribution to the renewal of Jewish society in Germany . But his successor, Thomas de Maizière – who this week cancelled a planned trip to Israel – has been hostile.

Haaretz has seen a series of letters exchanged between Maizière and Rabbi Josh Spinner, the seminary's U.S.-born chairman, in which the government firmly refused funding, citing limited budgets, already strained by contributions to the Liberal seminary, as well as the Jewish Studies faculty at Heidelberg University .

Berlin 's Orthodix rabbis are furious, claiming the government is discriminating against them in favor of more assimilated Jews.

"This dispute reveals the true attitude of the German authorities toward Jews," one of the seminary's rabbis said. "The Germans are prepared to finance Jewish educational institutions as long as the Jews are Liberal, look like them, define themselves as Germans first and Jews second."

Maizière's reference to Heidelberg caused particular anger, as the Jewish studies faculty there is a secular institution, not a theological college.

"Anyone seeking ordination as a rabbi needs to fly to the U.K. or the U.S. to train there," the Berlin rabbi said.

And the rabbis' claims of discrimination my have a basis in law, says Benjamin Ladiges, a Berlin lawyer.

"The state has no right to chose one seminary over another," he told Haaretz. "The Basic Law [ Germany 's constitution] dictates that as soon as one religious institution gains funding, others of a different denomination are entitled to the same support."



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