BERLIN, April 1 (AP)--American Jews have long expressed their horror over the Holocaust by snubbing Germany. They refuse to visit. They don't buy German products. They are wary of Germans.

Soon, many of them are likely to be hearing what may seem a radical message from their rabbis: that 21st-century Germany is a different place.

The message is based on the deeply personal observations of 50 rabbis who met with German officials, religious leaders and ordinary citizens during a recent three-day visit to Berlin. It was the largest such delegation to come to Berlin since World War II.

``The message is that Germany, and specifically this government, is profoundly committed to righting the wrong that was perpetrated against our people,'' Rabbi Marc Schneier of New York told The Associated Press.

``This goes beyond an expression of remorse and contrition. It is a true repentance,'' said Schneier, who headed the delegation from the North American Boards of Rabbis, an interdenominational alliance that says it represents 4,000 rabbis in the United States and Canada.

It hopes the views of Germany will filter down to congregations in the coming weeks as delegation members return to their temples and describe their experiences in Sabbath sermons.

The critical measure of Germany's repentance, Schneier said, is its commitment to Israel: Germany is Israel's key ally in Europe and Israel's second largest trading partner after the United States. The bond is so rooted in the traumas of World War II that German and Israeli diplomats alike commonly refer to it as ``our special relationship.''

``Support of Israel is key,'' said Schneier. ``And also Germany's continued support of its Jewish community. And the fact that the government in Germany will not tolerate any form of anti-Semitism or racism. These are the critical issues of concern to the American Jewish community.''

The mission is one of a half dozen by international Jewish organizations planned for this year, largely in recognition of Germany's support of Israel but also, as the rabbis stressed during their visit, to offer moral support as Germany battles its biggest postwar surge in right-wing crime.

American Jewry ranges from secular to ultra-Orthodox, so it's difficult to gauge the overall impact the Berlin visit might have on American Jewish perceptions of Germany.

But the rabbis are better positioned than visiting academics and politicians to reach a broad audience, Schneier said.

``At the end of the day it's only rabbis who can disseminate messages to the masses,'' he said.

``I think it's a long overdue message,'' Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, said in a telephone interview from New York. ``The postwar history of Germany is obviously a complicated story. But the bottom line is that this is the third generation after the Holocaust. And it is the least compromised by the past. And the most open to a critical examination of the past.''

The acknowledgment of Nazi crimes is a cornerstone of postwar Germany. It has paid Jewish and other victims billions of dollars in restitution. Its leaders have made repeated, dramatic gestures of atonement.

A half-dozen rabbis who spoke at length about their visit also cited the passage of time, saying the acknowledgment of a changed Germany that they are now prepared to offer their congregants was not possible earlier.

Among the visitors were children of Holocaust survivors who said they could only now confront the reality of a modern Germany. Some had been reluctant even to set foot in the country.

``I'm a perfect case. When people heard I was going to Berlin, they asked why was I going. The truth of the matter was, I was not sure,'' said Rabbi David Gaffney of Jacksonville, Fla.

``The more time I'm spending here the more value I see in Rabbi Schneier's concept of the need to create dialogue and the need to convince many people living in the past that we need to deal with Germany,'' he said, then added: ``It is the scene of our greatest horror.''

Even the desecration of a Holocaust monument smeared by vandals with feces during their visit did not dim the mood of hope. They responded by offering prayers.

One of the visiting rabbis, Theodore Alexander, recalled studying for his bar mitzvah in the 1930s on the very street where the monument now stands in memory of the 59,000 Jews deported from Berlin - among them his entire family except for his parents, sister and himself.

``I do believe the memory of the Holocaust is more of the serum for the German population than anything else,'' said Alexander, now 80 and a rabbi at Temple Beth Am in San Francisco. ``What we have seen at the monument could have happened in every American town. Some crazy skinhead does not for me mean anymore that the population is wrong.''

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad