Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Cheshvan 5765 - November 3, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







A Career in East Berlin

by Rabbi Yisroel Friedman

The East German economy was in a sorry state and its image in the Western world was bad. East Germany systematically renounced all responsibility for Nazi crimes as the government nationalized property the Nazis had robbed from the Jews. Meanwhile West Germany tried to scour its conscience -- or its image -- clean with the soap of reparations. East Germany, perhaps because of its scant funds, remained estranged.

On the other hands Jews, and others who called themselves Jews, managed to climb up the ladders of power in East Germany, securing key posts in party and state leadership. Herman Eksen was East Germany's liaison with Arab countries and terrorist organizations. Markus Wolf, the most wanted man in the West, a shadowy figure known as "the man with no face" because Western intelligence organizations had not even been able to obtain a picture of him, had a Jewish father.

On the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht (November, 1988) a letter was sent to Eric Honecker, general secretary of the East German Communist Party and also head of state of East Germany, demanding that he revoke all of the court rulings issued against Jews persecuted in East Germany. During this period Honecker was expending inexhaustible energies to establish closer ties with the West in general and the US in particular in order to obtain economic aid to cover the national deficit. As a result, he hastened to carry out the request. For similar reasons, top government officials decided to assist in the rehabilitation of the local Jewish community. They were convinced that if good relations were forged with world Jewry, particularly the World Jewish Congress whose leaders included Edgar Bronfman, it would help them with oil deals.

A short time later Stasi agent Irena Ronga landed in Israel. A real Jew born of parents married kedas Moshe veYisroel in Eretz Hakodesh, she eventually made her way to East Germany. Now she was using family ties in Eretz Yisroel to inquire about a suitable rov for the dwindling Jewish community to try to polish the East German image. Throughout her search, the Germans stressed the need for an Orthodox rabbi, for their experience with Reform rabbis had been very undignified.

The quest seemed bizarre. East Germany was even more Communist than Russia. Under Honecker, tanks still roamed the streets. The government did not even permit Jewish marriage, only civil marriage, and suddenly along comes a demand for an Orthodox rov?

When Rav Weinman became the leading candidate, he sought the advice of Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom Eliashiv, shlita. Before giving his blessings, Maran made an unambiguous stipulation: "Do not take Shulchan Oruch Even Ha'ezer with you to Germany." His intention was clear: not to deal with any matters of personal status.

Although geirus is in Yoreh Dei'oh, it was certainly included. Rav Weinman says HaRav Eliashiv meant he should refrain from performing any weddings or divorces! Just harbotzas Torah and Jewish awareness.

When Rav Weinman arrived in East Germany for the first time, 11 men took part in the tefilloh on Shabbos -- but there was no minyan, for only nine of them were halachically Jewish.

In the back row of the shul sat a young man of about 16. Wearing a solemn expression and appearing somewhat bewildered, he seemed detached from the other congregants. Nobody went up to him at the end of the tefilloh. They left slowly, but the young man stayed in his seat, lost in thought. Rav Weinman approached him and tried to initiate a conversation in English, but to his surprise the young man replied in Russian. Finally they spoke in German as a compromise.

He was the son of a ranking official at the Russian embassy. His mother was Jewish, he said. His grandmother was too. His father was a high-ranking diplomat in the Russian Foreign Service -- essentially the KGB's liaison to the Stasi. In the past, as is common with career diplomats, they had lived in various countries.

Unlike other Jews who revealed their Jewish identity during those years, his family concealed it. Once he had overheard a conversation between his mother and grandmother indicating that they were Jewish, but they cautioned him not to tell anybody. It was not a difficult request to honor since he had only the vaguest understanding of the word "Jew." The information remained in the recesses of his memory, surfacing occasionally to pester him.

Gorbachev's Perestroika had begun. Now that the Communists had stopped jamming the Voice of America, broadcasts on Jewish topics had begun to arrive. The young man absorbed what he heard and internalized it. Books, of course, were unavailable.

The young man spent a long time in Berlin with his father, who had been sent by the Russian "big brother" to oversee the little brother, East Germany. He knew there was a Jewish community and a synagogue, but he had never gone there. "For some reason I woke up with a feeling of apprehension this morning," he told Rav Weinman. "A voice inside me wouldn't let me rest. It was a strange impulse. This is the first time in my life I've stepped into a synagogue," he added with tears in his eyes.

"For the first time in my life I had a chance to see what a rabbi looks like, a rabbi from Jerusalem. For the first time in my life I had a chance to hear Kiddush," he said as he sat down at Rav Weinman's Shabbos table. "This was my first time hearing Shabbos songs and words of Torah. I feel a deep need to recite the only blessing I know from the Voice of America broadcasts: Shehechiyonu vekiyemonu vehigi'onu lazman hazeh."

Rav Weinman embraced the young man. A tear began to slide down his young guest's cheek. "And I cried, too," Rav Weinman recalls. Tears bridging the generations.

The young man was impatient, fearing somebody would notice his absence, but his legs refused to carry him away. They arranged to meet again, and their subsequent meeting led to further contact. Can there be any greater proof that Torah "lo sishochach mipi zar'o?" Rav Weinman later asked the few members of the local kehilloh still left.

Their ties grew stronger and they met frequently. Eventually the young man built a Torah home in Eretz Yisroel.

A Kibbutz in East Germany

Rav Weinman did not move to Germany. When he flew in with his family to hold a Pesach Seder with the kehilloh, the Jewish rabbi with his crates of lettuce drew many curious glances at the Berlin airport. El Al also took part by allowing him to transport a load of fruits of Eretz Yisroel shortly before Tu Bishvat for the Jews far away from Eretz Yisroel -- and even further from its mitzvas -- for generations. Throughout Rav Weinman's time in East Germany, he gave shiurim and held heart-to-heart talks with many people.

The spiritually awakening of East Germany's Jewish community was acutely felt. Some of them were American Jews who had emigrated many years before from the land of unlimited opportunity to the land of impossible limitations. In the early and middle years of the 20th century, many Jews were caught up by the ideological promises of Communism. At the time, McCarthyism held sway in the US. Communists were persecuted to the point of expulsion.

This was also the period in which Jewish Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, following a controversial trial.

The prosecution tried to force the couple to plead guilty, which would have incriminated all of the 50,000 members of the American Communist Party as well as 500,000 sympathizers. This did not happen. The Rosenbergs remained silent and the affair ended at Long Island's Bellwood Cemetery.

For decades there was an emotional debate. Were they guilty or were innocent Communist sympathizers killed because of the hysteria? In recent years, with the opening of Soviet records to public inspection, it was found that they were in fact spies, but it does not seem that they managed to give away any information that was of real value.

America in those days was still in tumult. The Communists, many of whom were Jewish, felt hunted. Searching for a safe haven, many of them went to East Germany. One group started a kibbutz in their new land. They were Jews by descent, but totally severed from Jewish tradition.

No Oil to Keep the Flame Burning

Years passed before the first spiritual stirrings became apparent. A Jewish cultural organization was founded in Berlin by Jews who wanted to become familiar with Judaism, primarily from a cultural rather than religious perspective. But the organization took a turn when Rav Weinman began to serve in the local rabbinate.

Rav Weinman: "Sometimes you don't know why the hand of Hashgochoh brought you so far away and under such unexpected circumstances--until you see the results. One of the young men who was very interested in the shiurim drew closer to Yiddishkeit. Eventually, he came to Eretz Yisroel and studied in the yeshiva in Zichron Yaakov. Later he went to the US and built a home with one of the descendants of HaRav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch. After the wedding, he returned to Eretz Yisroel to resume his Torah studies and later, at the advice of HaRav Shlomo Wolbe, became a maggid shiur at the local yeshiva, Beis Medrash DeBerlin.

"After two years of harbotzas Torah, HaRav Dovid Karen of Amsterdam told me, he moved there to study at the kollel in the city, where the Jewish infrastructure is sufficiently developed to allow a ben Torah to build a Torah home and raise his children properly. But it all began with a thirst, a spark that had not been extinguished, with the shiurei Torah that began with the arrival of the rov from Jerusalem to a faraway land."

East German Jewry was torn between two opposing forces: a powerful thirst for Judaism and terrible ignorance. Not much remained from the region's glorious past. Once, HaRav Ezriel Hildesheimer's Adas Yisroel had been there, but the magnificent beis knesses was destroyed. Only the rabbinical seminary building remained standing, without its budding rabbonim, teachers and spiritual guides to light the way.

The Adas Yisroel burial plot remains as it was. Cold gravestones and a few hearts still burning in Berlin, without the Jewish oil to keep the flame burning bright.

The modern Jewish community in East Germany defined itself as Orthodox. They denied both the Reform Movement and the Conservative Movement a foothold, although they took in those who had been converted by Liberal (i.e. Reform/Conservative) rabbis or various chazanim. The acceptance criteria were bris miloh and knowing all of Bircos HaTorah by heart. This was how the term "Jew" was defined according to the local lexicon.

According to the leading poskim, the Jews of East Germany who knew nothing about Judaism were not considered apostates (no din mumar). Therefore, Rav Weinman tried to persuade the heads of the kehilloh to expand the criteria to include anyone born to a Jewish mother, even if he had drifted so far from Judaism that he had not been circumcised or did not know the brochos over the Torah by heart.

He also demanded they not accept fictitious conversions performed by unauthorized individuals. Of course, Rav Weinman, based on Maran HaRav Eliashiv's parting words to him, did not become involved in conversion himself.

But the heads of the kehilloh held their ground-- bris and Bircas HaTorah. Rav Weinman realized he had his work cut out for him if he wanted to changed this entrenched thinking.

With the Head of the Communist Party

The first lecture he gave in East Germany fell on attentive ears. The lecture was held on Tu Bishvat and dealt with the mitzvas connected to Eretz Yisroel. Rav Weinman says he was sent unmistakable siyata deShmaya. His listeners, who were far from Judaism and in the grip of a Communist worldview, did not hear only what was said but rather what was close to their hearts. In every word of the lecture they heard the concern for every individual, rich or poor, and concern for laborers. They came back to hear subsequent lectures, the first step in building a bridge to Judaism.

During Rav Weinman's years as rov of the kehilloh he met with heads of state on several occasions. He explained the need for this as follows.

"Once the Jews set out for the golus, gedolei Yisroel took leadership matters into their hands," says Rav Weinman, "even what is known today as political leadership. R' Yochonon Ben Zakai saved the Jews with his request to Aspasyanus (Vespasian) --`Give me Yavneh and its wise men.' Ever since then the rabbonim have run Jewish affairs in every area of life, shaping its character. Only when Jewish life began to decline on account of Jews who turned their back on their heritage did a kind of retreat begin. I came to assist the community, and if necessary one must meet with the national leaders."

Rav Weinman maintained ties with then-prime minister, Lothar de Maiziere. Every time he came to East Germany the government would send a car and bodyguard. But the first meaningful connection was forged with Communist Party Secretary George Gizi, who was one of the country's most powerful leaders.

Gizi's father was a Jew -- the son of a Jewish mother -- who himself once served as minister of religious affairs. As minister he saw to the restoration of Jewish property to the community and maintaining the availability of kosher meat, bringing a shochet in from Hungary once every two weeks.

Unfortunately, most of this meat did not reach the Jews, who did not eat kosher and did not really ask for it. Many Arab diplomats were staying in Berlin, for at the time Eastern Europe had close ties with Islamic countries. They insisted on ritually slaughtered meat and got it, leaving little for the Jews.

The former Religious Affairs Minister also restored books that had been confiscated by the government authorities to Jewish hands. This required a special authorization from Honecker, the East German ruler.

A Jewish heart beat in the chest of the elder Gizi, who shared several prolonged, intimate conversations with Rav Weinman. When he opened the chambers of his heart he returned to parts of his childhood left far behind, back to his home, his Jewish mother. He related how his grandmother had perished in Auschwitz because she was Jewish. He even stretched his memory back in time to his early childhood, recalling how he marched off to the home of a tzaddik.

"What was his name?" Rav Weinman asked.

"I don't remember."

"What blessing did he give you?"

Gizi strained his memory, but this was beyond his recollection as well. "Perhaps," Rav Weinman suggested, "he blessed you with a long life to be used to act for the sake of the Jews. You have done so until now. And I am sure this is what you will do in the future. But now they are in need of your help more than ever."

Rav Weinman asked him to arrange for every Jew to receive a tallis, tefillin and siddur. They also spoke about the possibility of having kosher bread brought in at least once a week. But most of all Rav Weinman took advantage of the ties to reach Gizi's son, the de facto ruler of the country. A short time later, the two met. Rav Weinman laid on the table a crystal bowl brimming with fruits from Eretz Yisroel.

End of Part I

The Heritage of Berlin -- HaRav Ezriel Hildesheimer zt"l

Today Berlin boasts a real yeshiva. But Berlin was also the city that sent forth the Enlightenment and the Reform Movement. Against these malevolent winds stood a man committed to defending Yiddishkeit against those who sought to undermine it.

HaRav Ezriel Hildesheimer zt"l, waged a war against the Reform and Conservative forces, using his mouth and quill to dispel the darkness. As part of his campaign he founded a Beis Medrash for Rabbonim (the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary -- Rabbiner Seminar Fur Das Orthodoxe Judenthum). Through his fight for truth he even won the esteem of his sworn enemies, but during his lifetime they refused to admit this. He was a Torah great and a leader involved in the world of action. Jewish history has known few like him.

Throughout his lifetime, HaRav Hildesheimer fought for total severance from the destroyers from within. His kehilloh was disconnected from the general Jewish community, like HaRav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch's kehilloh in Frankfurt and the kehillos in Hungary. At the time of the big split in Hungary, the Maharam Shick and the Ksav Sofer wrote, "Please remove yourselves from the tents of these wrongdoers, lest you perish in their sin. HaRav Ezriel's kehilloh also separated itself from this evil congregation and formed Kehillas Adas Yisroel."

HaRav Ezriel fought an unswerving battle. "Peace without truth is defeatism and capitulation," he said. When the Reform Movement cast its schemes as efforts toward internal peace within the Jewish community and declared, "Peace now," HaRav Ezriel insisted, "Truth now."

At a gathering in Germany to discuss antisemitism, for instance, the Liberal rabbis proposed various concessions regarding non-Jews. HaRav Ezriel objected to this unyieldingly. "I don't understand HaRav Ezriel," said Maybaum, one of the leaders of Liberal Judaism. "Three times a day he says, `Oseh sholom bimromov, Hu yaaseh sholom oleinu,' and now he is almost the only one to object to the proposal."

HaRav Ezriel said that his claim contains an intrinsic contradiction. "True, I say this. But immediately afterwards I take three steps back," -- meaning peace does not always bring positive progress.

Peace, he once said in a droshoh on Parshas Pinchos, is crucial. But only peace coupled with truth, and there is no truth without Torah. In a life of falsehood, peace is surrender and defeatism. Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel loved to carry out the precept, `Ho'emes vehasholom ehovu.' Peace linked with truth, subject to it, after achieving it . . . "

HaRav Ezriel waged his war within the camp as well. When one of his talmidim who served as rov of a large kehilloh went off track, HaRav Ezriel came out against him in an opinion statement in the newspaper Israelite. The next day, the talmid arrived at the home of his esteemed rov. He fell to the ground and burst out in bitter tears, saying he had never cried like that his whole life.

HaRav Ezriel Hildesheimer studied at the yeshiva of the Oruch LaNer. He was a multidimensional figure, a Torah great closely involved in day-to-day affairs. Sulam mutzav artzoh verosho magi'a hashomayimoh. A rov and a fighter. A posek and an educator. A man of letters and a gifted writer. A godol beTorah and an askan whose net spread far and wide.

Assimilated Berlin provided him plenty of fertile ground. The Reform Movement encompassed all of urban German Jewry. It was not that strong in the small towns. When he was a university student, 90 percent of his Jewish peers were severed from the Jewish religion. Some of them converted, others remained without religion. Those who remained, known as "Israelites," were affiliated with Reform synagogues. They stayed in the Jewish camp for only one purpose: to wage battle against the Jewish tradition. The door of HaRav Ezriel's dorm room bore an inscription in chalk: "Ve'od boh asirei'oh" ("And if one tenth remains in it . . . ").

While still a boy HaRav Ezriel already saw the world with the eyes of a godol beTorah. Recalling his childhood years during a droshoh, he once said, "Darkness and fog covered the nation in which I was born and in which I became a man. The ruffians of the generation, the deniers of the Torah, were out in the open and luck was with them. And yirei Hashem went around with heads bowed low before the haters of the nation, who called for the glory of the Torah to be lowered to the ground and whose only aim was to cut down the Torah and mitzvas from their foundations.

"I left my father's home while I was still a young boy. Hashem alone was my Stronghold, my Guide and my Supporter. Until I recalled a cherished prophecy that comforted me, the promise, `And if one tenth remains in it then that will again be consumed, but like a terebinth and like an oak whose stump remains when they shed their leaves, so the holy seed is its immovable stump'" (Yeshayohu 6:13).

One of HaRav Ezriel's major weapons was his Beis Medrash for Rabbonim. His goal was to produce Orthodox rabbonim who could compete with the Reform rabbis in the fight over the hearts of the masses drifting ever further away. This was the call of the hour and HaRav Ezriel sensed the call beckoning him, as revealed in a letter he sent to HaRav Michel of Magentza.

In a written plea to support Yeshivas Eisenstadt he referred to the secular studies taught there as "stratagems in the war, that are needed to sanctify the Name of Heaven." Elsewhere he wrote, "Integrating general studies appears indispensable in order to maintain and run the kehillos in accordance with the present circumstances." In all of the letters of advice he sent to his talmidim, whenever he mentioned general studies he would refer to them as "subjects necessary at the present time."

Gedolei Yisroel saw HaRav Ezriel's approach in the context of his particular time and place as the salvation of German Jewry. They respected him and accorded him great honor. Thus the Maharam Shick and HaRav Yehuda Assad sent their sons to study at HaRav Ezriel's yeshiva.

HaRav Ezriel had a particularly close relationship with HaRav Yisroel Salanter. On several occasions, R' Yisroel came to visit at Kehillas Adas Yisroel thanks to his tight bond with their rov. HaRav Salanter closely monitored the activities of the rov he held in such high esteem. During one of his visits he even listened to a shiur HaRav Ezriel gave to the upper class, recording his impressions in a single sentence: "I envy HaRav Ezriel's portion in the World to Come in the merit of this teaching." In a letter he wrote, "Beis Hamedrash Lerabbonim, which belongs to Kvod Toraso, is a great act up in the Heavens for the strengthening of Torah and horo'oh."

We also find a warm recommendation for the Beis Medrash by Maran HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector, with whom HaRav Ezriel also maintained close ties. In his letter to the "noble Jews" of Russia, he wrote about "the great, righteous and upstanding rabbis in German lands who are fighting back in the turbulent war against the Reform Movement, which has led to the abandonment and desolation of the Torah halls of Germany . . . and the last of them, who has done great deeds, is my dear friend, HaGaon Hagodol Umefursam Moreinu HaRav Ezriel Hildesheimer."

The great admiration among the Lithuanian gedolei Torah continued even after his passing. In a letter to his son HaRav Meir Hildesheimer dated 5694 (1934), HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky referred to the Beis Medrash Lerabbonim as a "fabulous institution" and an "important institution."

Those associated with the beis medrash included HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman (the Ponovezher Rav) who would daven there during his visits to Berlin. HaRav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman was head for a period. Based on HaRav Hoffman's recommendation, HaRav Avrohom Eliyohu Kaplan was sent to replace him as head of the beis medrash. Following this appointment, gedolei Yisroel began to visit the beis medrash constantly.

A letter from the Chofetz Chaim to HaRav Kaplan reads, "My heart was joyous upon hearing that Germany has begun to bring forth roses as in the days of yore when it was a place of lodging for Torah."

Gedolei Yisroel also held HaRav Ezriel himself in high regard. In 5644 (1884) he paid a visit to the town of Brisk. The Beis Halevy gave him the honor of delivering a droshoh to the kehilloh. Writing a letter to HaRav Ezriel on the first day of Selichos that year, the Beis Halevy addressed it to "HaRav HaGaon Hamefursom Tzaddik Yesod Olom" and wrote, "I have heard about your reputation and [when] you were recently in kehilloh Kedoshoh Brisk and we saw one another you exceeded your reputation and I thought I would come to you bearing blessings . . . May [you], the brave tzaddik, continue your good deeds for the benefit of others as you have done until now." The letter also contains a terutz to the kushiyoh HaRav Ezriel had laid forth during their meeting.

HaRav Ezriel was also close to the Chasam Sofer's son, the Ksav Sofer, and to his brother, HaRav Shimon. The Ksav Sofer even offered to have HaRav Hildesheimer join him as a second rov in Pressburg and to serve as rosh yeshiva.

Years later, when his chiddushim on Yevomos and Kesuvos saw print, Maran HaRav Shach wrote in his approbation, "Moreinu HaRav Ezriel, ztvk"l, who lived two generations ago, had a great reputation for his activities." Maran HaRav Moshe Feinstein wrote, "And he was famous among the gedolei olom of his generation over one hundred years ago." Maran HaRav Eliashiv, ylct"a, wrote that HaRav Hildesheimer "was known in his generation, which was well before ours, as a gaon and tzaddik."

When his chiddushim on maseches Brochos and Seder Mo'ed were published HaRav Aharon Leib Steinman wrote, "I am not in the least worthy of giving such an approbation, but this book that was written by a genius from several generations ago and who was considered one of the gedolim of his generation, does not need diminutive people [like me] to speak for him and his book."

HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira wrote, "And his greatness is well known, for the geniuses of the previous generations praised him and certainly his written work will be accepted in the beis medrash, and amolei Torah will benefit from the great light that shone in all of the German lands."

In his approbation, HaRav Feinstein also writes, "His greatness was agreed upon by the geniuses of the generations, the Beis Halevy and the Grach, the Ksav Sofer and HaGaon R' Eliyahu Chaim Maizels, zt"l." HaRav Simchah Zissel Broide also joined the chorus of accolades. Now the publishers are hard at work on his chiddushim on Seder Kedoshim."

HaRav Yaakov Kamenetsky referred to HaRav Hildesheimer as "the captain of German Jewry . . . A great scholar and one of the leaders of the struggle for chareidi Jewry." This captain had to navigate German Jewry across turbulent waters as the waves of Reform crashed against the sides of the ship, threatening to sink it."


Today, Jewish Berlin has a very different look. Most of its Jews were not born in Germany, but are refugees from Communism who were shed from the tree of Judaism by the years of separation from their heritage. Today, there is no real war in Berlin. Quiet now reigns there, the terrible silence in the aftermath of the storms that battered the land. The only light is the light of Torah glimmering at the end of the tunnel in the form of a true yeshiva, Beis Medrash DeBerlin. Several pages have been torn off the calendar and the hands of the clock are going around. Times have changed and with them the needs of the hour. Now, be'ezras Hashem, the light will shine bright and will bring them back to our Father in Heaven. Hope and prayer.


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