'The heart of European Jewry beats in Bavaria'

Orthodox European rabbinical group finds a home in Munich, with new funding

After decamping post-Brexit UK, the Conference of European Rabbis becomes first major international Jewish group to open its headquarters in Germany since the Holocaust

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, affixes a mezuzah to the doorframe of the Centre for Jewish Life in Munich, Germany on September 19, 2023. (CER)
Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, affixes a mezuzah to the doorframe of the Centre for Jewish Life in Munich, Germany on September 19, 2023. (CER)

MUNICH, Germany — When she emerged from hiding in 1945, Charlotte Knobloch found a city where “few could imagine any Jewish person would want to live,” she recalled in a speech Tuesday.

Her address was delivered to mark the inauguration in Munich of the new headquarters of the Conference of European Rabbis, an influential umbrella group, which moved its headquarters here from London.

“And now, the heart of European Jewry beats in Bavaria,” said Knobloch, the president of the Jewish Community of Munich, Germany’s second-largest, who, at 90, is the only Holocaust survivor heading a large Jewish community.

The move of the Conference’s headquarters comes with $1.6 million in core government funding for the Jewish group, underlining how hospitable Germany has become for Jews and Jewish groups. It also offers the Conference a chance to boost its activities, possibly giving it new resources in its competition with Chabad.

The move “is a symbol of hope and a message to all the dark forces that threaten the Jewish people,” Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Zurich-born president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said in a speech before he affixed a mezuzah to the doorframe of the new offices.

“Munich, a place with a tragic history, today shows a flourishing Jewish life. This development is proof that anti-Semitism will not succeed,” he said of the inauguration of the new headquarters, whose official name is the Centre for Jewish Life and is housed in a building owned by the DEHOGA Association of the Bavarian hospitality industry.

Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish Community Munich, gives a speech during a ceremony to inaugurate a memorial site at the former Muehldorfer Hart concentration camp, on April 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/dpa/Matthias Balk)

Florian Herrmann, head of the Bavarian State Chancellery and Bavaria’s minister of state for federal affairs, called the Conference’s move a “deeply moving, deeply symbolic gift,” saying it was the first time since the Holocaust that an international Jewish group was establishing its headquarters in Germany.

Knobloch, who is regularly accompanied by bodyguards due to repeated death threats against her by far-right extremists, said that the event’s significance lies also in how “hatred of Jews is growing in Germany, especially from antisemitic parties, and I mean especially the AfD party.”

AfD is a far-right party that opposes immigration, particularly by Muslims. It denies that it tolerates antisemitism, but some of its members have been implicated in expressions of Jew-hatred. The party’s honorary chairman, Alexander Gauland, in 2017 said Germans should not be “held accountable” for Nazism. The 10-year-old party was polling between 18 percent and 20% in national surveys of late.

Its rise to power coincides with the proliferation of antisemitic assaults both by far-right extremists and people with an immigrant background from Muslim countries, who typically target Jews in connection with Israel. A German watchdog on antisemitism documented 2,480 incidents nationwide in 2022, constituting a nine percent decrease in comparison to the statistics of 2021, which was a record year in terms of antisemitic incidents recorded.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, speaks at the inauguration of the Centre for Jewish Life in Munich, Germany on September 19, 2023. (CER)

“The symbolic element is palpable,” Gady Gronich, the CEO of the Conference of European Rabbis, told The Times of Israel at the inauguration of the new offices in central Munich, the capital of Bavaria. The city and state are often seen as the cradle of the Nazi movement.

There are also practical implications for Gronich’s group, which is Orthodox and widely seen as the main rival to the robust presence in Europe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Gronich declined to refer to this longtime rivalry, which is rarely discussed on the record with journalists. “We’re now able and going to boost the activities of rabbis and communities. I don’t want to get into all kinds of conflicts here,” he said. His organization has hired six new staff and is planning a major increase in activity in 2024, he added.

The Conference of European Rabbis, which has dozens of delegate rabbis in countries across the continent and beyond, lobbies governments and international groups in defense of Jewish Orthodox interests, such as fighting attempts to ban kosher slaughter circumcision. Internally, it certifies mohalim, or ritual circumcisers; promotes European mechanisms for punishing husbands who refuse to give their wives a religious divorce certificate; and trains young rabbis and their wives to lead communities large and small, among other activities.

Bavarian state minister Florian Hermann, right, Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, and Munich Jewish Community President Charlotte Knobloch, center, and others greet visitors to the inauguration of the Centre for Jewish Life in Munich, Germany on September 19, 2023. (CER)

In the early 2000s, the Conference of European Rabbis was involved in a mediatized conflict with the Rabbinical Centre of Europe, a Chabad-affiliated group founded in 2000, whose very name, critics alleged, was part of an attempt by Chabad to supplant the old guard of European Jewry’s leadership, whose origins were in Holocaust survivors.

The new government funding, Gronich said, will relieve some of the difficulties felt by Ukrainian and Russian Jews, tens of thousands of whom have left both countries after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. It will also “help tremendously toward training more young rabbis in leadership positions that will boost Jewish life not only in places like Munich, where about 10,000 Jews live, but also in remote communities.” About 50 rabbis who have been trained by the Conference of European Rabbis currently work in communities across Europe.

None have been doing so more devotedly, Gronisch said, than Shimon Kutnovsky-Liak, the Israel-born rabbi of Jurmala, a small town in Latvia that is a favorite holiday destination for Russian-speaking Jews. “This funding means more Rabbi Shimons, more outreach, more Jewish life,” he added.

The move owes in part also to the departure in 2020 of the United Kingdom from the European Union. It made it “more convenient” for the Conference, which lobbies European Union officials regularly, to move its headquarters to a major European Union member country, Gronich said. The embrace and support of the Bavarian government sealed the deal.

Gady Gronich, right, Charlotte Knobloch and others greet visitors to the inauguration of the Centre for Jewish Life in Munich, Germany on September 19, 2023. (CER)

“Part of it is that the United Kingdom is not in the European Union anymore,” Gronich told The Times of Israel. “Another part of the decision was the Bavarian government’s generosity. It’s the combination of those factors.”

In Bavaria, the Conference of European Rabbis is “now officially a line in the annual budget, which is a first in Germany,” said Gronich.

It didn’t come easy.  He and his staff, he said, have been working on the funding for the past 18 months and, as the deadline approached, have been working around the clock to meet the strict requirements of the Bavarian government for funding.

The German federal government and its states often offer funding to religious groups, including Muslim and Christian ones, but core funding for a religious group is unusual and unprecedented in Bavaria, the second-largest German state in terms of population with some 13 million residents.

Herrmann, the Bavarian state minister, referenced in an uncharacteristically emotional speech the centrality in some circles of German and Bavarian society of assuming responsibility for the Holocaust.

“We stand by our promise to protect Jewish life in Bavaria. ‘Never again’ is our reason for being and an eternal mandate for all in politics and society,” he said. “The move of the Conference of European Rabbis is confirmation that we have lived up to the task and words cannot describe how happy I am that this happened.”

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