Jewish Feminism in Post-Holocaust Germany
“One Shabbat at our egalitarian minyan (prayer group), a prayer written by Bertha Pappenheim in 1935 was … recited instead of the usual psalm. ... It struck a particular chord in all of us. We suddenly became aware that we had a tradition of our own—that we could stand on our own ground and take further steps along it. Gradually we discovered the achievements of numerous magnificent women in Germany before the Holocaust.”
(Elisa Klapheck and Lara Daemmig, “Deborah’s Pupils.” In Turning the Kaleidoscope: Towards a European Jewish Identity. Forthcoming.)
Jewish feminism in Germany today is an expression of a wide-reaching renewal of Judaism that has been going on in many European countries since the early 1990s. That women have their own movement within this development became evident at the first conference of Bet Debora in Berlin. Bet Debora is a Jewish women’s initiative founded in 1998. In May 1999 it invited female rabbis, cantors, rabbinically knowledgeable and interested men and women from all over Europe to Berlin. This conference, which was the first of its kind in Europe, was attended by two hundred participants from sixteen countries.
Precisely in Germany the unexpected phenomenon of a Jewish feminism raises the question of a point of departure. What can Jewish women latch onto half a century after the Holocaust? Initially, the women who founded Rosh Hodesh groups and egalitarian congregations in the 1990s seemed merely to be catching up with what their counterparts in the United States and Great Britain had accomplished in the 1970s and 1980s. However, it soon became apparent that they had their own foundations on which to build—the historical tradition of the Jewish women’s movement in pre-Holocaust Germany.
In 1904 Bertha Pappenheim had established the Jüdischer Frauenbund. Together with like-minded fellow militants, she fought for equal status for women in the Jewish community, for the right to vote and be elected and for women’s right to professionalize their abilities. For Pappenheim, all these constituted no deviations from Jewish tradition. Rather, it was from her own deep religiosity that she developed totally innovative thoughts on the socio-political significance of womanhood. Although Pappenheim held to the traditional ideal of women as “Guardian of the Family,” she liberated it from its protected private sphere and expanded its significance by defining the entire Jewish community and even the state as a whole as “family.” Thus she claimed the public sphere as “women’s natural sphere of action.” What appeared to her to be the most obvious sphere of action was first and foremost social work which she and thousands of other women established on a high professional level within the Jewish community in Germany.
Bertha Pappenheim was far from the only woman whose feminist thinking opened up a new dimension in Judaism. In 1930 Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi in the world, completed her studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Academy for the Science of Judaism) in Berlin with a halakhic thesis entitled “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?” In it, she asserted that women by their very nature were particularly qualified for the rabbinate, because they were naturally endowed with such social competences as love of human beings, tact, empathy and an easy approach to youngsters, all of which were essential to the rabbinical profession as a continuation of Jewish tradition. Jonas employed the female grammatical form “Rabbinerin” (woman rabbi). She argued that women could not only perform the same functions as men but could endow the profession with a specifically female identity. She went so far as to maintain that a woman rabbi must, as a matter of course, fulfill the function of a “leader” (“Führerin”) in the congregation.
In their different ways both Pappenheim and Jonas expressed what many women, both before and after World War I, were prepared to take upon themselves, namely to be the bearers of Jewish teaching, which they now intended to continue to create in a responsible manner and from a woman’s perspective.
The Holocaust put a violent end to this ingenuous awakening. After 1945 Jewish self-confidence was so shattered that the survivors clamored for the clichés of the “good old days” of the Orthodox style of the shtetl. They perceived all attempts at innovation as threats to be automatically resisted.
The Jüdischer Frauenbund was reconstituted in 1953 by Lilli Marx (Düsseldorf) and others. But only a few of the outstanding Jewish women activists of the pre-war period had survived and still lived in Germany to engage themselves in the revived organization. One of them was Jeanette Wolff, who brought a Jewish woman’s perspective to bear on social policy in her dual role as both a member of Berlin’s Jewish Community parliament (Repräsentantenversammlung) and an SDP politician in Berlin’s House of Deputies (municipal parliament). However, the social activity of the Frauenbund at that time was primarily directed towards caring for the survivors. In the 1960s energy gradually declined and interest focused more on Israel. The younger women joined organizations such as WIZO in order to raise money for the new Jewish state by holding bazaars and other welfare-oriented activities. As a matter of course, for an entire decade no other topic occupied the attention of Jewish women in the Diaspora.
There were, however, a few women who aired their Jewish-feminist views, although only as isolated voices and outside the communal mainstream. For example, in the 1970s Pnina Navé Levinson developed her own sphere of action as a professor at Heidelberg University where, however, she addressed a predominantly Christian-theological public. Her books were the first post-Holocaust Jewish feminist publications in the German language. In the 1980s when Daniela Thau was ordained at the Leo Baeck College in London as the first woman rabbi from Berlin since Regina Jonas, she had no prospect whatever of finding a position as a pulpit rabbi. In fact, hardly any woman in the Bundesrepublik paid any attention to Thau’s ordination, to say nothing of their maintaining that Thau could serve as rabbi of a congregation. However, at the beginning of the 1990s Jessica Jacoby was successful in getting Jewish women to express themselves as Jews in Bundesrepublik society. As a Jewish feminist, Jacoby founded the Shabbes-Kreis (Shabbat Circle) in Berlin, the first Jewish feminist initiative in post-war Germany. First and foremost, this group criticized both veiled and explicit antisemitic attitudes in the German women’s movement, as well as the repression of Germany’s National Socialist past. Jacoby was the author of the first post-Holocaust work on Jewish women’s self-awareness to be published in Germany. What characterizes most of its contents is the ambivalence of living as a Jew in the “Land of the Perpetrators,” whether as a survivor or as one of the so-called “Second Generation.”
Most Jews, both male and female, reacted to the dramatic events of November 1989 and to the subsequent process of Germany’s unification; the fall of the Wall was also a turning point in Jewish life. History made a comeback and became visible in its erstwhile locations. Jewish women kept discovering the remarkable work of outstanding Jewish women of the pre-Holocaust period.
In 1993 a Rosh Hodesh group was established in Berlin and at the same time an egalitarian minyan was founded, meeting in a private home. But such a spiritual awakening occurred not only in Berlin. Quite independently of each other, liberal Jewish groups and egalitarian prayer groups arose in almost all the larger cities in Germany, some initiated by private individuals, some as new Liberal congregations. All of them criticized the emptiness of the prevailing spiritual-religious life and sought for possibilities of an appropriate renewal which would relate to the earlier tradition of Liberal Judaism in Germany, for so long considered to be a thing of the past. Equality of the sexes constituted a common spiritual denominator for all of them. The woman who stood on the bimah wearing a prayer shawl and head covering, who read from the Torah scroll and fulfilled all the other religious functions of the service, became one of the identifying images of this new movement. In fact, women constituted a majority in this initiative. From the first, their much stronger presence vis-à-vis the men in the minyanim could not be ignored; frequently women constituted two-thirds of the membership. Many of them trained themselves to be proficient in running a service, learned to read Torah and questioned existing liturgy.
By the mid-1990s this movement of change had established itself as a new but strong component of Jewish life. Although the official establishment mostly had reservations concerning this development there were a number of political successes. A meeting of the Berlin Rosh Hodesh group on Shavuot 1995 led to the first political action within the community. The Berlin women protested against the mode of election for synagogue boards, which had recently been decided upon. According to this decision, only men could be elected as board members. A petition revealed that there was a broad consensus opposed to the outdated stand of most of the community representatives. Women demanded their right to perform religious functions in the synagogues. In so doing they drew upon the discussions of the 1920s. Already in 1930 Martha Ehrlich had functioned as the first woman board member (gabba’it) at the Rykestrasse Synagogue. The petition led to a change in electoral procedure two years later, so that synagogues could henceforth themselves determine whether or not they would accept women as board members. In 1998, after a difficult struggle, the members of the Egalitarian Minyan and the additional, more traditionally-oriented Egalitarian Service which had been founded two years previously, were officially granted the right to use the Oranienburger Strasse synagogue. From the first, it had active women board members.
In the interim, Bea Wyler had in 1995 begun to serve as the first post-war woman rabbi in Oldenburg, Braunschweig and Delmenhorst. This constituted a further breach of taboo. Furthermore, beginning in 1995 the Union of Liberal and Reform Groups and Congregations held annual meetings in Arnoldshain, in 1997 becoming the Union of Progressive Jews, a development which constituted a challenge to the Orthodox stand of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland). One of the major points of contention was still whether women could perform active religious functions at religious services. However, reality had by now overtaken the issue: women who so desired stood alongside men on the bimah, not only in Berlin and other German cities but throughout Europe, where a similar development had taken place. In Minsk, Paris, Budapest and Oldenburg, Vienna and Oslo—everywhere groups had been formed in which women had taken the initiative, even as rabbis and cantors. Great Britain played a leading role in this respect, since in 1976 Jacqueline Tabick had been ordained as the first European woman rabbi at Leo Baeck College.
The 1999 conference on women’s issues sponsored by Bet Debora raised new issues for discussion. The program included such topics as: What would be the effect on Jewish tradition and transmission if women were to determine it equally? What themes and challenges would come to the forefront? Would the new activists, like their precursors before and after World War I, constitute a driving force in the revival of Jewish life in Europe and in consequence change Jewish identity in general? From the very outset Bet Debora defined itself as European and thus stressed the uniqueness of European Jewry which, after a decade of American and Israeli domination, was again recalling its own culture and tradition. The conference participants included: Katalin Kelemen, who had just been ordained as a rabbi in Budapest and headed a Reform congregation there; Nelly Kogan (Shulman), the youngest woman rabbi in Europe, who was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and was involved in community-building in Minsk and other locations in the FSU; Daniela Thau, who lived in Bedford, England and who, as Germany’s first woman rabbi after the Holocaust, had a decade earlier been unable to find a position in a German congregation; second-generation rabbis Sylvia Rothschild, Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah and Sylvia Sheridan, who had already established a woman-related tradition in Anglo-Jewry; Diana Pinto of Paris, whose slogan of the “Voluntary Jew” had created a new concept of Jewish identity in the new political conditions current in Europe; Judith Frishman of Amsterdam, a feminist theoretician who presented the concept of “reconstructing a useable past” for Jewish women.
In addition there were Shoshana Ronen (née Elbogen) and Ilse Perlman (née Selier) who had studied at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in the 1930s, only a few years after Regina Jonas; and Hanna Hochmann (née Gerson), who was at the time operating youth services in a liberal Berlin synagogue.
At a second conference, in June 2001, Bet Debora dealt with a topic which was not limited to religion and was of great significance both to the future of the community and to the lifestyle of every individual member: Is there a future for the Jewish family? In Europe, as elsewhere, the Jewish dream family is no longer “normal.” Jewish men and women live as singles, single parents, in mixed relationships, as lesbians and homosexuals—in short, numerous lifestyles. Under the title “The Jewish Family: Myth and Reality,” the conference examined their reality from a Jewish perspective.
This second conference radically swept away old clichés. Among the topics addressed were: the isolation of the single woman, inter-religious partnerships, same-sex weddings, single motherhood and the status of children of non-Jewish fathers. In addition there were sessions on certain topics which are usually taboo at Jewish conferences in Europe, such as agunot, the “maternal imperative” and family violence. Participants also discussed alternative family structures, which are not based on biological relationships, and the responsibility of the Jewish community for their integration. A revealing controversy arose at the plenary session on “Left Over—Living after the Shoah—Rebuilding Jewish Life in Europe.” It brought to light how much the revival of Jewish life was still at its beginning. Many of the participants explicitly saw themselves as “second generation” and linked their Jewish identity to the trauma of persecution passed on to them by their parents. Others, however—like the founders of Bet Debora—were wary of creating a self-paralyzing identity based primarily on victimization. Instead, they considered themselves as the “first post-generation,” which no longer bases itself on the Holocaust but seeks to create something new which will, however, draw upon the traditions of the past. The lively debate which ensued demonstrated that some of the younger generation are on the brink of emerging from the shadow of the Holocaust.
The third conference of Bet Debora, held in May 2003, was dedicated to a more political approach: In what ways, and how much, do Jewish women engage in the power structures of their communities? What are the historical and social implications of their engagement? What do Jewish scripture and tradition have to offer to support women’s engagement in the power structures? What could the definitions of “power” and “responsibility” in Judaism be with regard to women’s activities? And how does all this interact with the rise of a new European Jewry, as well as with regard to the general European unification process?
Close to two hundred Jewish women, as well as a remarkable number of men, from Eastern and Western Europe responded to Bet Debora’s invitation. The conference itself was designed as an open forum for the exchange of ideas. The fifty-six speakers included many Jewish community presidents from all over Europe; directors of Jewish institutions; spiritual leaders (rabbis and lay leaders); activists operating at various community levels; scholars who added historical and Judaic perspectives; and artists who provided cultural contributions to the conference theme.
Among the speakers were Gabriele Brenner, president of the Jewish community of the southern German town Weiden; Professor Dr. Rita Kleiman, head of the Academic Judaica Department and chairwoman of the Jewish community of Kishinev (Moldavia); Sylvie Wittmannová, founder of Prague’s first liberal Jewish community, Bejt Simcha, in 1992; Rabbi Gesa Schira Ederberg, principal of the Masorti center in Berlin and congregational rabbi in Weiden; Charlotte Knobloch, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, president of the Jewish Community of Munich; and academics, journalists and feminist activists from virtually all European countries and from Israel.
The highlights of the numerous panel discussions, workshops and lectures included a revealing opening speech by Charlotte Knobloch in which she spoke frankly of her own “experiences of power in Jewish institutions.”
As at the previous conference, which started with the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the house in which Regina Jonas lived as a rabbi, the third conference also began with the inauguration of a memorial plaque, this time dedicated to Bertha and Hermann Falkenberg. Bertha Falkenberg was the first woman member of Berlin’s Jewish Community parliament. She survived Theresienstadt. Hermann Falkenberg was the founder of a liberal egalitarian synagogue in Berlin and died before the Shoah.
This third conference proved to be especially successful. The clear emergence of a European-wide network could be observed. Many participants had come to the previous conferences and their contacts were now deepened. A number of participants started to co-operate in various kinds of projects on a professional level. Ties between different Jewish communities and groups were strengthened. The willingness to develop cooperation between the “establishment” of Jewish communities and members of grassroots movements was affirmed several times during the conference. This was especially stressed in the opening speech by Charlotte Knobloch as well as by other representatives of Jewish organizations in Europe. Such an alliance might in the future be a key to the revival and renewal of Jewish life in Europe. Knobloch opined that the renewal of Jewish life depends on initiatives like Bet Debora, which at first seem marginal but prove to be the catalyst for major new developments.
There was a much stronger presence of Eastern European women due to Bet Debora’s special efforts to include them.The fact that simultaneous translation into Russian was provided in addition to the customary English and German enabled women from the former Soviet Union to speak in public with greater ease. However, not only they but all Eastern European women showed a remarkable self-confidence this time and a readiness to step up and let others hear about their experiences and points of view. As a result, Western women did not “dominate” with their views, or assign Eastern women the role of pupils. This time, Western women clearly learned a lot from Eastern women and vice versa—both sides met on equal terms.
Another indicator of the success of this conference was the dynamic that the theme itself developed among the participants. At first many participants, including community politicians, confessed their ambivalence regarding the concept of “power.” In the course of the conference this ambivalence declined. The necessity of participating in power structures was seen more clearly and pragmatically. The question shifted from whether Jewish women should want to attain power, to how Jewish women could express their power in a responsible way. What are the criteria of responsibility? What are the fields in which participants should strive for their share of power and in which they can best contribute to the continuation of Jewish life in Europe?
There is of course no one, single, answer to this question, since conditions vary from country to country. But it seemed that all the participants would bring new ideas and inspiration back home, to be applied there in concrete ways. The conference closed with two panel debates presenting future perspectives for Bet Debora, derived from the experiences and interests of all three conferences and their participants.
After having held three conferences in the city of Berlin, which of course has its own symbolism nearly sixty years after the Shoah, the conference will in future “wander” to different European cities in order to give a special impulse to Jewish life there. The fourth conference, in 2006, was held in Budapest, and developed and organized by “Esther’s Bag,” the group who edit a women’s page in the Hungarian Jewish newspaper Szombat. Other possible venues for future Bet Debora Conferences include Vienna and Amsterdam.
The final panel discussion was organized in co-operation with “Sarah-Hagar: Religion, Politics, Gender,” a Berlin project that has initiated a debate between representatives of political and religious spheres, incorporating a Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue. The purpose of this panel discussion was to go beyond the solely Jewish approach of the conference and to investigate possibilities of interaction with other segments of society.
Meanwhile, Jewish women’s activities have become much more diversified. In addition to Bet Debora, a second Jewish women’s organization, the Juedisches Frauennetzwerk (Jewish Women’s Network), emerged in Berlin in October 2002. It does not engage in religious questions, but unites Jewish professional women on a nation-wide basis. Germany’s national Jewish newspaper, Juedische Allgemeine, regularly publishes articles about the pros and cons of reforms related to women in Jewish tradition. Berlin’s orthodox “Rebbetzin,” Nechama Ehrenberg, has started to teach women about heroes and emancipated female role models in Torah and Talmud. Habad and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation offer assertiveness-training courses for Jewish women, such as the Foundation’s “Jewish Power Women,” which instructs them on how to combine a professional career with a modern orthodox lifestyle.
It may seem remarkable that Berlin—the city that gave birth to the Holocaust—has become a center of Jewish renewal and Jewish feminism in Europe. However, there is a certain logic in this. Tikkun means mending what was destroyed. Nowhere is the shattering of modern Jewish history by the Holocaust more apparent than in Berlin. Nowhere is the need for mending more strongly felt than in this city.
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