Birthplace of the Holocaust hosts first crucial rabbis’ conference after lockdown

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Birthplace of the Holocaust hosts first crucial rabbis’ conference after lockdown

Munich, where the Nazi genocidal project began, hosted an influx of rabbis from all over the world and from the full spectrum of Jewish views

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

2JAWFRN Munich, Germany. 01st June, 2022. Joachim Hermann (CSU, M), Minister of the Interior of Bavaria, speaks during the 32nd General Assembly of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) during a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial. Credit: Sven Hoppe/dpa/Alamy Live News
2JAWFRN Munich, Germany. 01st June, 2022. Joachim Hermann (CSU, M), Minister of the Interior of Bavaria, speaks during the 32nd General Assembly of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) during a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial. Credit: Sven Hoppe/dpa/Alamy Live News

For Munich, this was a rabbinical “invasion” like nothing ever seen before.

The first surprise in encountering the 32nd Conference of European Rabbis (CER) was to see a giant banner advertising rabbinical residence at the Westin Grand Hotel in Munich, the flag flying proudly outside the upscale hotel.

For three programme-filled days, the Bavarian capital became home to 350 Orthodox rabbis from 43 countries. The European rabbis — including Britain’s own Chief Rabbi Mirvis — were joined by colleagues from Israel, Cyprus, Panama, Morocco, Tunisia, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and even Iran.

And that was before acknowledging the presence of rabbis on the front line, in the war between Russia and Ukraine, not least of whom, of course, was the genial Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Pinchas Goldschmidt, who is president of the CER.

The rabbis were joined by a raft of high-ranking Bavarian state politicians and European officials, together with faith leaders such as Professor Thomas Schirrmacher, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Catholic archbishop of Munich and Freising.

An indication of how welcome the CER presence was in Munich, was an opening address by Dr Markus Soder, Minister-President of Bavaria, plus an emotional speech at Dachau concentration camp by the state Minister of the Interior, Joachim Hermann.

Both the Bavarian and European officials acknowledged that the genocidal Nazi project had begun in Munich, but that major steps were being taken to attack and stamp out antisemitism wherever it arose.

Bavaria in particular has a number of civic roles specifically dedicated to addressing the antisemitism issue. Dr Ludwig Spaenle is the state government’s antisemitism commissioner, a keynote speaker at one of the sessions. Religious freedom, the non-Jewish delegates agreed, meant freedom of Jewish practice, from shechita to brit mila.

Elsewhere there was participation from Nicola Beer, the vice-president of the European Parliament and its special envoy on combating religious discrimination; from the Council of Europe’s Daniel Holtgen, its special representative on antisemitic and other hate crimes; and the European Commission’s Katharina von Schnurbein, the co-ordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life.

Ms von Schnurbein was awarded the Rabbi Moshe Rosen for her long work in helping Jewish communities across Europe. And there was special acknowledgment, too, for the admired German Jewish leader, Charlotte Knobloch, who received the first CER president’s prize.

There were some controversial guests before the main conference began: Rabbi Arye Deri, chair of Israel’s Shas Party, who has served prison time for bribery and fraud; and Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, who has made numerous controversial statements about Russian immigrants to Israel and secular Israelis.

Rabbi Yosef also made comments about Corona but the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, David Lau, came to speak at a session on dealing with communal issues during the pandemic.

In short, there was something for everyone at this conference, left and right, strict hard-liners and more “tolerant” interpreters. And there was no shortage of opportunities for the rabbis to hammer out what they could do about shechita restrictions, or to learn how to help younger rabbis.

Many rabbis simply skipped the formal sessions altogether, and used the opportunity to “kibitz” and network with friends old and new. There was genuine excitement at being able to embrace colleagues after two and half years of Zoom calls and Corona restrictions.

Perhaps the most intriguing session on the programme was one devised by the indefatigable Gady Gronich, chief executive of the CER.

He invited a small group of hand-picked rabbis to visit a group of members of the local military academy, police academy, and high school students in Munich.

The rabbis were told: “Don’t lecture, go and listen to their questions. Listen to what they want to know.”

It was hard to tell who was more fascinated, the rabbis or their audience: but Gronich believed that both groups learned a lot.

Gronich said the three main issues for the rabbis to address today were “assimilation, education, and how to provide a feeling of security for their communities”.

Everything else, as Hillel might have said, is commentary.

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