Germany’s Jewish Feminists

GERMANY. I’m a stranger here myself, visiting this spring. But thanks to Lilith connections, I’m welcomed by German Jewish feminists.

They’re part of the crazy mix of German Jews who have come back from near extinction to become the fastest-growing Jewish population in Western Europe. While Orthodox Judaism dominates the Jewish establishment, most Jews are non-religious immigrants from the Former Soviet Union—some 200,000, most of whom are not halakhically Jewish.

A Jewish feminist born in East Berlin, Lara Daemmig explains the birth of the Bet Debora organization in Berlin in 1998: She and two other women “decided to organize a conference of women rabbis in Europe. We didn’t even know if there were any.” A year later, a crowd of 200 attended the “European Conference of Women Rabbis, Cantors, Scholars and All Spiritually Interested Jewish Women and Men.” (Spring 2013 Lilith reported on a recent Bet Debora conference in Vienna.) Today Daemmig co-chairs Bet Debora Germany.

Born in Vienna, Malin Kundi grew up being told, “Your grandmother is Jewish but we’re not.” Kundi and her girlfriend arrived in Berlin just after the Wall came down. Her first seder was in Berlin—a lesbian feminist intercultural milestone with an orange on the seder plate and Afro Germans, migrant women and women of color. Now 49, she’s settled in Cologne, a photographer connected with Bet Debora.

Susanne Jakubowski, born in Poland, defied the Stuttgart Orthodox rabbi who challenged her Judaism in order to get her off the board of directors and out of Jewish life in the state-wide Jewish Religious Community. Jakubowski, now 61, an architect and CEO of her firm, had emigrated with her family to Israel, then Stuttgart. Her father was Jewish, her mother wasn’t. Once the non-Orthodox beit din [Jewish religious court] ruled that she was Jewish, she organized the community’s liberal minyan.

Last year, just one year after the start of this liberal minyan, 80 worshippers filled a chapel to overflowing for the region’s first liberal bat mitzvah since the Holocaust. Definitely unorthodox: men and women sitting together, some women wearing a tallit and yarmulke, the service in Hebrew with German and Russian, and the bat mitzvah girl in tallit, reading from the Torah. Not radical by American standards but even the liberal Pestalozzistrasse synagogue in Berlin separates men and women and has no aliyah for women.

Jewish feminism—still developing in Germany.