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Gathering Strength in Berlin

She held the Shabbat prayer book in her hand, but Inna Astvatsatryan could barely read it through her tears. This was Astvatsatryan’s first visit to Berlin from Armenia, her first Bet Debora conference. “Like most Soviet people, I didn’t believe in God.” Astvatsatryan, who chairs the women’s club of the Jewish Community of Armenia, later said. “But at that moment, I really believed that God saved me and saved my family.”

The power of the moment for Astvatsatryan underscores the isolation of many Jewish women in far-flung outposts. For many, this conference, held in May at the Museum of Prenzlauer Berg in former East Berlin, provided a rare chance to meet their counterparts from other countries.

In all, some 150 women came from across Europe, Israel, the USA and the former Soviet Union for three days of workshops and lectures, under the theme of “Power and Responsibility.” Speakers included communal and religious leaders, political activists, artists and writers.

The program focused on effective leadership, biblical role models, how to balance personal with communal needs, how to succeed in male-dominated domains, and how to avoid seeking power for its own sake. [LILITH’S editors ask: Would any men’s conference have worried about this?] Leaders encouraged women to run in local elections; at present there are very few women in positions of authority in German Jewish communal organizations.

In keeping with the theme, the event was launched with the dedication of a plaque at the former home of two prewar Berlin Jewish activists: Bertha Falkenberg, who in 1924 fought for the rights of women to vote as full members of her synagogue, and her husband, Hermann Falkenberg, founder of a liberal synagogue in Berlin. Their granddaughter, Edna Sovin, came from London for the ceremony.

Among the more controversial subjects at the event was the question of whether Europe’s Jewish community should be more active in helping refugees, and a closing discussion with Christian and Muslim women.

The gathering “was a breakthrough on a political level,” said conference co-founder Elisa Klapheck, noting that Charlotte Knobloch, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Cynthia Kain, a vice president of the Berlin Jewish community, both spoke at the conference.

“But it was also a breakthrough on a spiritual level.”

Bet Debora is the brainchild of Klapheck and Lara Daemmig, two Berliners, who already have a reputation as rabble-rousers for the cause of Jewish women. In the early 1990s Klapheck, who grew up in West Berlin, helped spark an egalitarian minyan that today is under the official umbrella of the Berlin Jewish community. She also has published the amiotated dissertation of the world’s first ordained female rabbi, Regina Jonas of Berlin, who died in Auschwitz in 1942. Recently, Klapheck and Daemmig—a former East Berliner—collaborated on a new edition of the prayers of Bertha Pappenheim, a pioneer in the prewar Berlin Jewish community, better known as Sigmund Freud’s famous patient “Aima O.”

The two have collaborated since 1999 on Bet Debora. To shake things up a bit, the next conference is planned for Budapest.

European Jewry still has a long way to go when it comes to so-called women’s issues. In Germany, there are very few women on the boards of Jewish communities. Of some 24 rabbis, two are women. There are fewer than a handful of congregations where women as well as men can read from the Torah.

In Berlin, where only one of six synagogues has mixed seating and offers aliy as to women, the first Bet Debora conference in 1999—which focused on female rabbis, can torsand educators—was part of a trend toward greater acceptance of diversity. The road has not been easy. Not all members of the established Jewish community in Germany feel comfortable hosting Jewish feminists on their turf But, as several speakers said at the opening event, Bet Debora appears to be “here to stay.”

“It has become a tradition,” Charlotte Knobloch said.

But complacency is dangerous, added Alice Shalvi, founder of the Israel Women’s Network who addressed the conferees. “Four years ago, you were the outsiders. Beware of becoming establishment.” If you become an insider, Shalvi said, you give up to some extent the mandate to challenge the status quo.