By Lianne Kolirin
Europe’s biggest rabbinical alliance has officially based itself in Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi party.
The Conference of European Rabbis (CER) has operated from London since 1956, when it was set up specifically to revive the “vanquished communities on the European mainland”.
But Brexit prompted the organisation, which unites more than 700 Orthodox leaders from across Europe, to seek a new home on the Continent.
Then last year, following a successful conference in Munich, Markus Söder, the president of Bavaria, invited the CER to settle there permanently.
What might have been initially an outlandish — or even outrageous — idea, became a reality on Tuesday evening when dignitaries gathered at the group’s new premises in Munich, just streets away from where Adolf Hitler first came to prominence with his failed Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923. A little further away lies a memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the first games to be held in the city since 1936.
At the helm of the CER is Pinchas Goldschmidt, who was the Chief Rabbi of Moscow until stepping down after he criticised the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.
Speaking to the RMC before the inauguration, Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt described himself as “a rabbi in exile”. He said: “I resigned after I criticised the war and I understood that I couldn’t stay any more in my position after criticising Putin and I had to leave Moscow.”
The conflict is one of the key issues facing the conference today. “Two Jewish communities are being destroyed: one of them is Ukraine and the other one is in Russia.”
He previously called on Russian Jews to “leave while they can”, and now believes Munich could become a new home for many of the fleeing refugees that the conference supports.
Munich, which was the base of the Nazi killing machine until Germany’s defeat in 1945, is today home to a blossoming Jewish community. At about 9,000 strong, it is finally back to a level not seen since Hitler’s election in 1933. Many of Munich’s current Jewish residents hail from the former Soviet Union, and Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt believes that more will follow.
“It’s a beacon for Jewish life in Europe,” he told the opening of the Centre for Jewish Life, as it is officially known.
But a generation ago the prospect of such a move would have been unthinkable. “The discussion started many years ago,” Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt told the RMC. “It was in the 1990s when our then president, Lord Jakobovits, who was Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, was invited to come here [Munich] and it raised the question of ‘should we go back or not?’
“It was a wide discussion and we came to the conclusion that since there is now a big influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union into Germany, that we have a responsibility to serve this community.”
Part of the vision for the centre is to make Jewish life more open and visible, while the CER will now expand its educational offerings significantly, providing training programmes for rabbis and rebbetzins, their wives.
It will also hold international conferences and events on issues affecting Judaism and the Jewish world. Chief among these, according to Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt, is freedom of religious practice and tradition, which in some parts of Europe is threatening key aspects of the Jewish faith — kosher slaughter of meat and circumcision.
Someone who has witnessed the Munich community’s revival first hand is Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish community of Munich and Upper Bavaria.
Dr Knobloch, who was born in Munich, survived the Holocaust thanks to a Catholic couple who took her in and passed her off as their own. Her grandmother, however, perished at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Speaking alongside Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt at the opening, she said: “I’m absolutely happy that such an institution is coming here to Munich, a city that has seen the worst of times.”
Dr Knobloch, a former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, added: “As a Jewish citizen of Munich, and as president of the local Jewish community, I look forward to further deepening the co-operation with the CER — locally but also regionally and beyond.
“To strengthen the Jewish presence in Europe and in the fight against Jewish hatred, all forces must be combined today.”
The rise of antisemitism in Europe overall, and Germany in particular, is a great concern, said Dr Knobloch, as is the growing support for the far-right AfD party.
The Bavarian government is not only supportive of the initiative but has also backed it with €1.5 million annually.
Dr Florian Herrmann, head of the Bavarian state chancellery and minister for federal affairs and media, said: “We stand by our promise of protecting Jewish life in Bavaria. ‘Never again’ is our reason for being and eternal mandate for all in politics and society.”