Interview in the CER Newsletter

EnglishCER logoThe Conference of European Rabbis included an interview with me in their most recent newsletter.

Choice quote:

“While attending a logistics class toward my MBA, the professor asked a simple question: when might it be more appropriate for a clothing company to have a single distribution centre for the entire USA, and when might it be more appropriate to have several distribution centres? The upshot is that to reach your customers, and in our case those are the Jews in our city, you can draw some of them to a central location, while others need to be sought out, you need to go where they are.

Here is the integral text:

Interview with Rabbi Arie Folger, Rav of the Jewish Community of Munich, Germany

In the first of our interviews with kehilla rabanim in Europe, we talked to Rabbi Arie Folger, recently installed as Rav of the Jewish Community of Munich in southern Germany.

Rabbi Folger was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and learned in the yeshivot of Wilrijk, Gateshead, Mir and Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn before receiving semicha from Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Theological Seminary in New York and from the Szmigrader Rebbe of Antwerp. He served in rabbinical roles at Young Israel of Fifth Avenue and at Park East synagogues in Manhattan before becoming the Rav of the Basel Jewish Community in Switzerland in 2003. He holds an MBA from New York University.

Before leaving Basel, Rabbi Folger was also president of the Swiss Rabbinical Council. He is married to Faigy and the couple have five children.

Germany today represents the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe largely as a result of many Jews from the Former Soviet Union immigrating to the country from the 1990’s onwards. This has led to great changes in the community in recent years, as Rabbi Folger explains.

“The generation that rebuilt German Jewish communities after the war – even the very secular Jews among them – had grown up in a world that was much more traditional. While the level of formal Jewish instruction wasn’t generally high (though there were exceptions, like the Talmud Torah that Mr. and Mrs. Figdor ran in Munich), in general, Jewish children got many Jewish values in their mothers’ milk. Still, there was much assimilation already then.”

Today, the situation is ostensibly less promising although the potential for building a strong and sustainable observant community remains.

“Nowadays, several more decades and a generation or two separates many young Jews from their somewhat more traditional grand- or great-grandparents. Many are even further removed from observance and tradition, and don’t know anyone who lives a spiritually-imbued life of loyalty to G-d and fealty to halacha. The cumulative effect of continuing assimilation takes a tremendous toll, and creates great challenges for the communities. Meanwhile, because of those same trends, there is less understanding for the halachic boundaries of who is a Jew. That in turn makes the task of chinuch of children, adults, and the integration of geirei tzedek so much harder, but it’s possible and has been done, we just need to keep on fighting, building, bringing people near. But there is no time to lose.”

There are clearly quite large differences between the Jewish community which Rabbi Folger served in Basel and his new kehilla in Munich.

“It’s simply different,” Rabbi Folger says. “In Basel, I faced a community that had been enormously successful sending people on aliya or otherwise become very involved in community life. So many of them had moved away that the community had developed a lop-sided population pyramid. The challenge was to maintain the great institutions of the community and activate many of the less active members who had become acculturated or even assimilated, with the help of the more or less traditional and very loyal core of members.

“But in Basel there were hardly expectations of further building up the community, and budgetary considerations sometimes placed real constraints on daring developments.

“In Munich, we are facing a very different reality. Because of the influx of former Soviet Jews, the community grew tremendously in the last twenty years, and we have thousand of Jews, even community members, who have not yet had a chance to adequately discover their own Judaism. Even though the large inflow of Russian and Ukrainian Jews has ceased, institutionally, it is still a growth market, but one focussed on people who are already members, or at least already in Munich.”

One of the most important developments in the community was the opening of the new synagogue and community centre, a state-of-the-art building in the centre of the city which houses all the community institutions. This has both advantages and disadvantages for community life.

“The institutions are well developed, partly precisely because they are centralised. Our beautiful central building gives us tremendous exposure, allowing us to get the attention of people who might not otherwise find us, among them many Jews. It also allows us to reach a very significant population of non Jews, and work towards reducing prejudices.”

So the central building has its values, he says, but also some limitations.

“But centralisation has its downside, too. Often, large community centres are located in prime neighbourhoods. It thus becomes very expensive to live near them, making shemirat Shabbat harder. Additionally, the distance from where people actually live makes those centres somewhat more socially distant from individual members.

“While attending a logistics class toward my MBA, the professor asked a simple question: when might it be more appropriate for a clothing company to have a single distribution centre for the entire USA, and when might it be more appropriate to have several distribution centres? The upshot is that to reach your customers, and in our case those are the Jews in our city, you can draw some of them to a central location, while others need to be sought out, you need to go where they are.

“My advice is to take a leaf from the business world and try to play the strength of both by finding a locally appropriate happy medium for every community.

“Thankfully, we have not one but three synagogues here, so we can reach more people, but even then, many people live too far away from the shuls to walk. In the future, we may need to find creative ways to occasionally get to the people, rather than expect them to respond to our invitations and come to us.”

It has taken time to build up a strong organisational and support structure among rabanim in Germany but while the Organisation of German Orthodox Rabbis (ORD) is still relatively young, it has seen great growth in both its activities and membership.

“Yes, the challenges are great,” Rabbi Folger says, “and we need all the support we can get. I am also happy to see that the CER is supportive of our efforts.”

Rabbi Folger admits that there is still much work to be done to encourage Torah learning within the community.

“Here, we have a lot of work to do. For a community of 10,000 Jews, we are still very far from our potential, but we are in the midst of launching an exciting new programme. I hope to be able to report on it very soon. It would be good to compare notes with rabbinical colleagues in the CER on this – perhaps in one of your future newsletters?”

Away from the large traditional centres of Jewish populations, it is often difficult for observant families in general and for young rabanim in particular to find an appropriate educational structure for their children.

“Here, too, we are building,” Rabbi Folger told us. “Instead of every rabbinic and other observant family fending for itself, we started pooling together, and just ran a one-week programme during the school vacation. My daughters initially complained that the Rashis were too challenging, that we were pushing them to learn a section far too difficult for during the vacation. But at the end, they were grateful for having understood the matter better (and the arts and crafts related to those Rashis did help a lot).”

“My wish is that over time, we’d be able to build a proper Jewish gymnasium, with a significant kodesh programme.”

One of the greatest challenges for the German rabbinate is the integration of the newer Russian-speaking community into communal life.

“There are still many former immigrants who hardly speak German, though many have indeed integrated to a larger extent. But it’s been even harder reaching the next generation. Then again, it isn’t the first time this has happened to Klal Yisrael.

“In Sefer Nechemia, we read about Babylonian Jews who after seventy years exile and the majority hesitant to return home, when they wanted to learn about Judaism, they reacted with shock and awe when hearing about the strange practice of Sukkot, and other such revelations of matters they had long forgotten on account of their lengthy exile. Eventually, they came back to Torah and messorah, and integrated.

“With G-d’s help, we will do all we can to get them, along with the Alteingesessene (those who came here decades ago, and their descendants) into the batei knessiyot and batei midrashot, though it isn’t happening overnight. Hazman katzar vehamelakha meruba.”

These developments will create a re-born though clearly different German Jewish community from that of the past. As Rabbi Folger says, how this will develop will depend on many different factors.

“It depends very much on us, on the lay leadership, and on the help of philanthropists. Some Jews unfortunately will assimilate away and be forever lost to us (or at least until Mashiach comes, as per the last prophecy of the Sefer Yeshayahu), while others will reconnect with G-d and His Torah.

“How many end up in one group or another is anyone’s guess, but I am fairly sure that both will grow. While the number of committed Jews will increase, along with or rather as a result of the construction of a more well- developed infrastructure for supporting observant life, polarization will sadly increase and it will be harder to keep communities together.

“Nonetheless, the strengthening of observant life isn’t what will contribute most to polarisation, that train has already left the station, and it is propelled by the forces of individualism and distance from tradition. What we must do to counter that polarisation is, first of all, to always preach ahavat yisrael, and secondly, in addition to building shomrei Torah institutions, we need to strengthen those that will provide a minimum level of Jewish education and commitment for as many people as possible.”

But that is not enough, thinks Rabbi Folger, who believes that the traditional, Orthodox rabbinate remains the entrenched, legitimate representative of the masses of Jews regardless of observance.

“I strongly believe we should promote unity and ensure that the traditional, Orthodox rabbinate remain the chief representatives of Judaism and of the Jewish masses. Rabanim should also engage the larger world and labour on behalf of the weak, needy and downtrodden, as well as help shape general society’s values. Then, we will remain relevant to the less observant, and also cause the realisation of the verse in Devarim 4:6 of being seen by the non-Jewish world as a true “am chacham venavon” and the Kiddush haShem that this brings.”

Rabbi Folger stated however that in a united Europe, the mobilisation of positive forces for kehilla development need not be restricted to Germany alone.

We need to create exchange programmes, to get lay leaders to see what rabbanim have achieved elsewhere, get them to see the beauty of Torah and what it has done for communities. Right now, lay leaders are very much reached out to by certain lay organisations that are only too accepting of trends that could have negative effects on the perpetuation of klal yisrael, so I think that the CER could be an important balancing factor here.

“We are investing in the long term, so even when we reject some facile ways to boost membership in the short term, we actually provide a healthy way to sustain the communities in the future.
Rome, or rather Munich, wasn’t built in a day, though, Rabbi Folger says.

Issues such as Birrur yahadut, geirut, kashrut, but most of all, chinuch face us daily here. In general, we must keep on questioning when, where and how much to involve ourselves in certain problematic areas, and must sadly sometimes retreat from certain areas because the time hasn’t come yet to tackle those. I find tremendous inspiration in the Gemara at the end of Sota, regarding the difference between a circular choir made of both men and women, thus violating the prohibition of kol isha. If the women watch the men, and are last to sing, then it’s erva, it’s indecent. But if the women sing first, and the men gaze at them to know what to sing when, it’s ke-eish bine’oret, like bringing a flame to a wad of flax. So the Gemara wonders what kind of halachic terminology that is. Either it’s allowed, or prohibited, but what’s that eish bine’oret business? So the Talmud answers libtulei ha mikamei ha, to figure out which one to deal with first.

“It seems the world hasn’t changed much in eighteen hundred years. Even the Amoraim couldn’t just barge in and order the communities to adhere to all rules, they had to judiciously choose to tackle the worst violation first, while temporarily closing an eye to the others. So if even the Amoraim couldn’t do it all at once, I don’t have to be worried of tackling one thing at a time. Success comes from painstaking work, and much of that is being an effective role model and an honest, effective, loving PR man for G-d’s Torah.”

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