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Berlin Hosts Unusual Feminist Gathering

It was an uncommon sight—a dozen women, some wearing yarmulkes, strolling down Oranienburgerstrasse in Berlin. It was lunchtime for participants in Europe’s first-ever conference for female rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators. Passers-by could not help noticing these women, openly Jewish, with “Bet Debora” name tags pinned to their lapels, meandering toward one of the neighborhood’s several Israeli-style cafes.

It’s not every day that one sees more than a minyan’s worth of identifiable Jews in public in this city—where Jewish venues are under 24-hour police guard—let alone women in garb traditionally reserved for Jewish men.

The Bet Debora conference, held in May, was the brainchild of three German-Jewish women—Lara Daemmig, Elisa Klapheck and Monika Herweg. A forum for new ideas and current problems regarding women in Judaism, the conference also included lessons in chanting from the Torah and haftorah; tours of art galleries featuring female Jewish artists; holiday workshops; and a chance to dip in a mikveh. It included presentations by two dozen European women and one American cantor, and included both liberal and traditional Jews, as well a handful of non-Jews. Having drawn some 200 participants, they already are planning a repeat event for the year 2001.

The conference, which was sponsored by the Berlin Jewish Community, the Jewish College of Berlin, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and the City of Berlin, was quite revolutionary for European Jews, who in terms of liberal and egalitarian Judaism are at least a generation behind their American and British colleagues. Frequently, congregations face bitter fights from the traditional establishment—and not simply over the inclusion of women. Still, as the number of such progressive groups grows, the number of women participating in Jewish life is increasing.

Most sessions were held in the Jewish Community Center of Berlin, a new building attached to what remains of Berlin’s “New Synagogue.” Some 60 years ago, the world’s first female rabbi, Rabbi Regina Jonas, stood in that sanctuary to deliver a sermon. Ordained in 1935, Jonas was deported to Theresienstadt with her mother in 1942. They died at Auschwitz just a few months before liberation.

“I learned a lot from her,” said Klapheck, who recently edited and published the text of Regina Jonas’ dissertation, “Can Women Wear Rabbinical Robes?” along with a biographical text. She is currently working on an English translation. Jonas, who came from an observant family, was not accepted as a rabbi in traditional circles. Klapheck said Jonas continued to deliver sermons in Theresienstadt, where she sometimes received a piece of bread as thanks.

For female Jewish activists coming to Berlin, the conference not only honored Jonas’ memory; it also drew local Jewish women out of the woodwork, demonstrating a place for them in their community. Berlin officially has about 11,000 Jews, more than half of whom arrived in the last ten years from the former Soviet Union. The city today has an egalitarian minyan led informally by lay-leader Miriam Rosengarten (and attended by many women) and seven active non-egalitarian synagogues. Most post-Holocaust, continental European Jewish communities are officially Orthodox, but today the status quo is shaken by increasing demands for participation by women and for liberalization of the definition of who is a Jew.

Berlin is no exception. Its relatively new egalitarian congregation, started by a group of young Germans, only two years ago received official recognition and help from the official Berlin Jewish community. Since then, this small but dedicated congregation now has its own chapel with Torah and ark. An unspoken fact is that some regular attendees at the egalitarian services are not Jewish according to Jewish law, which is based on matrilineal descent. (They are not, however, counted in the minyan and do not get called to read from the Torah.) Some are considering conversion, but for now are content to learn and pray. Their presence alone, however, offers a challenge to Orthodox standards.

The very fact that an egalitarian congregation exists in Berlin with official support marks a sea change for Judaism in Germany. While the egalitarian group is more akin to an American liberal Conservative congregation, recently, another Reform-style congregation has begun meeting in Berlin, at the former American Army headquarters. In Frankfurt, the Jewish community is now financially supporting its own progressive congregation. Currently, a Swiss rabbi, Bea Wyler, is the only woman leading a congregation in Germany. But several conference participants were in formally invited to help lead some of the rabbi-less congregations in Germany’s growing Jewish community.

Klapheck, who taught herself Aramaic and learns Torah and Talmud on her own, said the situation for Jewish women in Europe is still affected by the Holocaust. “Because of the Shoah, development fell back. There were women who were active in religious areas before the Nazi time, but somehow it just wasn’t possible for half a century afterward….I don’t feel that I can find teachers here who will teach from a modern perspective,” she said. “It is a challenge to wear a tallit or to become a rabbi because the community will not give you a chance to work there. You have to fight for it. And if you get it, you are alone.”