May 18, 2010 / 5 Sivan 5770
Last week, on May 9, 2010, the 65th anniversary of the Allied victory over Hitler's armies, I spent that day as I often have in the last few years with Jewish veterans of the Red Army. As usual they were weighed down by their endless display of war medals and decorations, but buoyant with pride in their service in the Great Patriotic War. They were singing the same songs as every year, swapping the same stories, recounting the same memories, and even sang "Hatikva" at the end of the ceremony. But there was something strange, even awkward, about the scene this year-the location: Frankfurt, Germany.
These were veterans who had chosen with their families to move from the former Soviet Union and settle in Germany. So, why did I decide to spend this year's ceremonies in Germany? What is the special interest to the Jewish Agency of that community?
While most other Diaspora Jewish communities are shrinking, Germany's Jewish community has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Some 20,000 Jews in Germany in the 1980s were joined by more than 200,000 Soviet Jews after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But as quickly as this community grew, it can just as quickly disappear since these Jews have a dangerously weak, vague understanding of their Jewish identity.
Unlike most other Diaspora Jewish communities, the Jews in Germany are not concentrated in just a few major metropolitan areas, but are scattered in over 100 German cities and towns due to a well-intended German government policy of re-populating Jews in numerous different areas. The biggest community in Berlin has a Jewish population of just 12,000. Most Jews, however, live in communities of just a few hundred, or even a few dozen. In addition, almost half-about 100,000-are not halachically Jewish, and are often not accepted in communities with strong and developed institutions.
Though my quick trip through several communities, and my meetings in each of these with Russian-speaking Jews supported my general concern for the Jewish future of these communities, I also found some reasons for guarded optimism. I spent time at a special Birthright seminar for alumni, where young men and women traveled from all over Germany to spend three days in learning, study and discussion. They were enthusiastic, inspired and involved, and it was with a joy to talk to them. I spent time with student activists, who spend a great deal of time and energy focused on the Jewish future. They, too, felt connected to their Jewish roots and to the people and State of Israel.
Also gratifying, was time I spent with seven young people who were in the process of making aliyah. Clearly, this aliyah was of their own free choice and idealism,
But these silver linings came with dark clouds. All of these Jewishly connected young adults with whom I spoke agreed that the overwhelming majority of their Jewish friends will likely stop being Jews in the near future. Each is at a crossroads in their life in terms of their identity. They are deciding now who they will be in the future: Germans of Russian descent? Europeans, with no additional identity? Jews who happen to live in Germany?
While they are at a crossroads, I believe, we at the Jewish Agency have a narrow window of opportunity to influence their decision. For example, Birthright trips to Israel have unquestionably had a big impact on their participants. Unfortunately, only about 200 young adults per year currently are participating. We need to bring them to Israel by the thousands. Similarly, Jewish Agency seminars following trips to Israel are very effective; but at the present we have just one or two such seminars per year, each with about 100-200 participants. We need many more. I met with dozens of Na'aleh families; but it is evident that the number of families willing to participate is many times larger.
That is why we in the Jewish Agency have created a special task force. Its mission is to develop a strategic plan which broadens existing successful programs for Russian-speaking German Jews, and to add new ones.
The fate of this community could turn out to be one of catastrophic assimilation. Or it might be one of surprising success. A lot depends on us and the choices we will make.
Warm wishes for a Chag Shavuot Sa'meach from Jerusalem