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Rabbinic ordination highlights contrasts for today’s German Jews

Left to right, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu and newly ordained Rabbis Dani Fabian, Reuven Konnik, Naftoly Surovtsev and Jonathan Konits, following their ordination ceremony at the Synagogue Community Center in Cologne, Germany, Sept. 13, 2012. (Photo by Uri Strauss)

(JTA) — For four men in Germany, this Jewish New Year will be like no other. It will be their first year as ordained rabbis, working to help build Jewish life in the very country that nearly succeeded in wiping out European Jewry.

In ceremonies held Thursday at the Roonstrasse Synagogue in Cologne, Daniel Fabian, Jonathan Konits, Reuven Konnik and Naftoly Surovtsev — graduates of the traditional Orthodox Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin – were ordained, with Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentreu of England officiating. In all, eight graduates of the 3-year-old seminary — the successor to Berlin’s original Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary — have now received their ordination, or smicha, including two in 2009 in Munich and two in 2010 in Leipzig.

Thursday’s event, which drew religious and political leaders and much media attention, highlighted contrasts in life for Jews in Germany today. While new rabbis are being educated to serve a growing Jewish population, the nation has seen a rise in theoretical and corporal attacks on Jewish life, exemplified by the ongoing legal assault on the Jewish and Muslim tradition of circumcision and the recent brutal anti-Semitic beating of a rabbi in Berlin.

Speakers at the ceremony said Jews must and should be able to live and practice their traditions in Germany — and the ordination is a sign of confidence.

“To all those who now question Jewish life in Germany, I say this: Jewish life here is safe and must be safeguarded,” said Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which co-hosted the ceremony with the Rabbinerseminar.

The massive media attention to Germany’s latest rabbinical ordination is important especially now, “when our tradition is under attack,” said Rabbi Josh Spinner, executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and founding director of the Lauder Yeshurun, the collection of Jewish educational programs in Berlin under the Lauder Foundation umbrella.

And “it is a celebration of the future leadership of the Jewish communities of Germany,” he added. “These four guys mirror the Jewish demographic: All four live in Germany and got married in Germany. Two are from the former Soviet Union, one is American, one was born in Israel but raised in Germany.”

This is “real, home-grown, organic Jewish life,” Spinner said.

For the four new rabbis, the swirl of public attention underscored that their private identity as students was about to change dramatically. Perhaps most remarkable is that for them, traditional Jewish life in Germany is not only possible but practically taken for granted.

“If you are in the middle of it, you don’t think about it,” Fabian told JTA a few days before the ceremony. “Sometimes when I go to Switzerland people tell me it’s so amazing that Jews are living in Germany again. And then I think to myself, ‘yeah, you are actually right.’ ”

Yet for Fabian, attending yeshiva, raising a Jewish family with his wife, Daniella, shopping for kosher food and meeting with fellow students “is just my everyday life,” he said. He will continue in his role as director of the Lauder Midrasha, the Berlin-based school for women.

Fabian, who turns 38 on Wednesday, was born in Ramat Gan, Israel, to parents born in Romania. The family moved to Germany when he was 6 months old.

“My grandfather was living here already,” he said, “and my father got a good job here.”

With a master’s degree in biology, Fabian discovered early on that he had a “talent for explaining things and for teaching.” When he began studying at the Lauder Yeshivat Beit Zion in Berlin in 2000, he hadn’t given any thought to becoming a rabbi. But Spinner started asking him “to give a class here or speak there.” Fabian liked it.

Konits, 30, has taken a position in Frankfurt with Jewish Experience, a new program for young Jewish professionals. With original plans to combine his interests in psychology and teaching, the Swarthmore College graduate came to Germany from Baltimore on a Fulbright grant a few years ago. He connected with the Rabbinerseminar and stayed.

Konits’ parents were hesitant initially about his decision to remain in Germany, “but those thoughts were taken away entirely when I got married and when their grandchildren came along,” he said.

As for Jewish life in his adopted home, he is optimistic. “You would never believe how many secular Jews are just dying to get in” to the Lauder kindergarten and primary school, he said. “This would never occur in America.”

The demand reflects the tremendous growth of the Jewish population in Germany since 1990. Some 200,000 people with Jewish backgrounds arrived in the past two decades from the former Soviet Union, pushing the number in Germany to about 240,000. (Some 105,000 of those with Jewish backgrounds are officially registered as Jewish, according to the Central Council of Jews in Germany.)

Jewish education has been slow to catch up, particularly at the elementary and high school levels. But rabbinical training took off, at both the Liberal Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam and the Orthodox Rabbinerseminar. Chabad in Berlin also offers supplemental training to rabbinical students at its Yeshiva Gedola.

The Rabbinerseminar chose to hold its third ordination in Cologne, where the seminary has close ties. One of the new rabbis — the Belarus-born Surovtsev — will remain in Cologne for the next year as an associate to Rabbi Yaron Engelmayer. Surovtsev will follow in the footsteps of former classmate Avraham Radbil, now serving a Jewish community in Freiburg.

“We have a good and intensive relationship with the Beit Midrash,” the original name of the yeshiva, Ebi Lehrer, 58, head of the board of the Cologne Jewish Community, told JTA. For example, the seminary has sent rabbinical students to run local seders in Russian, “so they can give explanations to young members in their language,” said Lehrer, who also chairs the board of ZWST, the Jewish welfare organization in Germany.

Prior to the influx of former Soviet Jews, about 1,300 Jews lived in Cologne and there weren’t enough youngsters to establish a school, Lehrer said. Now the Jewish community exceeds 4,000.

“We have a pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and primary school, and a youth center,” said Lehrer, who dreams of educating a new generation of cantors. (Konnik, another of the newly ordained rabbis, already is working as cantor in Magdeburg.)

Surovtsev, 25, had dreamed of being a lawyer or social worker, but his summer camp counselors and teachers in Pinsk predicted that “one day I will become a rabbi.” He started studying at the Lauder yeshiva immediately after his family moved to Germany six years ago and eventually transitioned to rabbinical studies.

His family is proud, “especially my grandmother; her grandfather was also a rabbi,” Surovtsev said.

When Surovtsev is asked how Jews can live in Germany today, he answers with his own question: “How can Jews live in Ukraine or Spain?”

For him, the biggest challenge is not combating anti-Semitism or defending religious freedoms, but rather encouraging pride in Jewish identity.

“I am trying to answer this challenge with my own example,” Surovtsev said, “and hoping that my work as rabbi will show to the people that to be a Jew is very unique and wonderful thing.”