Sports clubs help Russians in Germany be Jewish for the first time

The 3 Saxony Maccabi centers assist members to embrace a Jewish community they couldn’t acknowledge in the atheist Soviet Union

Elderly Russian immigrants play chess at their Makkabi Leipzig Jewish sports club. (Thomas Fritz/The Times of Israel)
Elderly Russian immigrants play chess at their Makkabi Leipzig Jewish sports club. (Thomas Fritz/The Times of Israel)

LEIPZIG — Lost in thought, the men sit opposite each other at three small tables, their foreheads burrowed in their hands. Six pairs of eyes are fixed on the figures in front of them in deep concentration. With a move once every few minutes, hours pass.

It is chess training at the Jewish Maccabi Sports Club in the Ariowitsch House in Leipzig, a center of Jewish culture in the Waldstraßen Quarter near the city center. The club, refounded in 2005, is along with ones in Dresden and Chemnitz one of three surviving organizations of the 1903 Association of German-Jewish Athletes in the state of Saxony. There are 34 more such Jewish clubs nationwide.

Time does not matter here: Most of the men are already retired. Just like the Jewish communities in Germany, these clubs are mainly populated by Russian-born immigrants over 50 years of age.

One of the chess players is Michael Lempert, 64, the Maccabi chairman. Together with his wife Irina, 63, he came to Germany in 1996 along with some 220,000 Jewish refugees from 1991 and 2004. In 2003, the Lemperts moved to Leipzig, a city of half a million, and a vibrant center of trade, science and music.

Lempert is responsible for the 79 Maccabi members, who are divided into football, volleyball, chess and table tennis departments.

Not all of the 1,300 Jews in Leipzig are well integrated into German society. Many came at an advanced age and still struggle with the language. Others find their professional qualifications from FSU countries are not recognized.

Irina Lempert, for example, was not allowed to work as a speech therapist in Germany in spite of her degree.

“On the one hand they have brought us into the country,” she says, taking a deep breath as she brings the open palm of one hand to her chest. “On the other hand” — she makes a dismissive gesture, “we have been rejected.”

‘On the one hand they have brought us into the country, on the other hand, we have been rejected’

Lempert thinks this rejection has less to do with anti-Semitism — although it does exist — and more to do with the problems faced by many immigrants. Nevertheless she says, “I feel really comfortable in Leipzig. This is my new home. I have many friends here.”

Her children and grandchildren have far fewer problems with integration, which in a way reconciles her with German society and gives her hope.

Küf Kaufmann, chairman of the Israeli Religious Community in Leipzig and head of Ariowitsch House, in which the office of Maccabi is located, understands Lempert’s problems firsthand. The 66-year-old moved from St. Petersburg to Germany in 1991.

Kaufmann is now a successful writer, director and comedian.

‘Sport is an important tool to bring the immigrants closer to Jewish traditions’

“Sport, as well as education and culture, is an important tool to bring the immigrants, who mostly had nothing to do with religion in the Soviet Union, closer to Jewish traditions. In this way we can integrate them as members of the society more easily,” says Kaufmann, who is also vice president of the Association of Jewish Communities in Saxony and Bureau Member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

“And sport connects us with the non-Jewish world, which is very important,” says Kaufmann.

This interaction comes by the way of regular league play, fair play tournaments or city championships like the Leipzig Chess Championship that was played this year at the Ariowitsch House.

Straddling two worlds

Vytautas Bubelis is at home in both worlds. The native Lithuanian is not a Jew, but was elected chairman of Makabbi Dresden in 2008. He rushes through the door of the new Jewish Community Center, close to the historic core of the baroque city on the banks of the river Elbe, almost late to his next appointment.

With a strong Russian accent Bubelis says, “Our oldest member is a football player, 69 years of age.”

Football, volleyball, table tennis, and chess are the sports played here at Makabbi Dresden. Most of the 50 members are over 40 years of age, Jews and non-Jews.

For Bubelis, whose wife is Jewish, it makes no difference. It is all about getting together and having fun.

Vytautas Bubelis, chairman of Makabbi Dresden, dreams of a table tennis team for children. (Thomas Fritz/The Times of Israel)
Vytautas Bubelis, chairman of Makabbi Dresden, dreams of a table tennis team for children. (Thomas Fritz/The Times of Israel)

In any case, most of the parishioners of German Jewish communities are not very religious: Faith is a plant that grows slowly in German Jewry, if at all.

But for the Saxony sports clubs, the biggest problem is not theological but rather the lack of training slots in the gyms. Also, in Dresden, as with the other two Maccabi clubs, youth participation is rare.

‘When young people play together, this is the best means to counter prejudice’

“When young people play together, this is the best means to counter prejudice,” says Bubelis, who speaks four languages. His dream remains the foundation of a basketball and table tennis training group for children.

It is clear to everybody that the future of the clubs depends on the youth.

But the Jewish sports clubs often only practice among themselves. In Chemnitz, with 25 members the smallest of the Saxonian Maccabi clubs, only the volleyball team plays in the city league. In Leipzig the table tennis players compete in the first and second city leagues and the chess players at the county level. In chess, there is also collaboration with a secondary school where 12 young players were able to become members in the last two years.

The most important event on the calendar is the Maccabi Games, through which contacts with Chemnitz and Dresden are maintained.

‘Sport unites the Jewish community in Saxony’

“It is always an interesting and joyful event in the life of the cities. Sport unites the Jewish community in Saxony,” explains Kaufmann, who says it is also an opportunity for many to become more aware of their Jewish identity.

But unfortunately their sense of community has also been strengthened by anti-Semitic incidents. In 2013 the far-right NPD, which has been represented in the parliament of Saxony since 2004, hung racist posters on poles around club’s Ariowitsch House during the party’s Bundestag election campaign.

“This shocked everybody,” says Irina Lempert.

Threatening phone calls, insulting letters and hate graffiti are a reality for many Jewish institutions in Germany.

“Such a thing happens only very rarely,” says Kaufmann. “Yet it reminds us that the world is not entirely free of social disease.”

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