First German Army Rabbi in 100 Years Takes Office

Hungarian-born Zsolt Balla is to be inaugurated as the Bundeswehr's rabbi at the synagogue in Leipzig

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

The first military rabbi to take office in Germany in 100 years is to be inaugurated on Monday.

The rabbi of the state of Saxony, Zsolt Balla, is to be inaugurated at the synagogue in Leipzig as Jewish chaplain to the German military, with others to follow in his footsteps in the coming years.

In an interview with broadcaster Bayern 2 ahead of the ceremony, the 42-year-old said he hoped he could reach not only the Bundeswehr, but also the wider German population. There are an estimated 300 Jewish soldiers currently in service.

"I think that antisemitism, and any form of hatred against minorities, is a thing that we can never eliminate from our society for good," Balla said. But it was possible to "at least isolate" these tendencies "with good work, good conversations and exchanges."

Soldiers of the German armed forces, or Bundeswehr, train in Berlin, Germany, in April. Credit: MICHELE TANTUSSI/ REUTERS

"We have to evaluate this every year, again and again: Are we doing enough for a better society in Germany?" Balla said.

He said his position was a historical responsibility. "I think it is not a false hope to say that one day it will be as natural for the Bundeswehr to have Jewish soldiers as it is for the armed forces of the United States, the Netherlands, France and England," Balla said.

Hungarian-born Balla studied engineering in his home town of Budapest. He has lived in Germany since 2002. In Berlin, he attended the Beis Zion Talmudic high school.

In 2009, he completed his rabbinical studies. That same year, he was ordained as a rabbi in Munich. He has been the regional rabbi of Saxony since 2019.

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.

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