Forty-two-year-old Zsolt Balla is one of Germany’s most prominent rabbis. He has been a member of the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany for nine years, and the leading rabbi of the eastern state of Saxony for two.
“It is our goal to make it normal again for Jewish citizens to serve in the German army,” he said on the occasion of his appointment.
The installation of a Jewish chaplain in the military marks a significant day for Germany and its Jewish community. Balla is not by any means the first German military rabbi. When World War I broke out in July 1914, some 12,000 Jewish Germans volunteered to serve in the military. Establishing a Jewish military chaplaincy became important in view of the large number of Jewish front-line soldiers. So, by September 1914, the first rabbis were introduced as chaplains.
The best-known Jewish field chaplain — one of nearly 30 in wartime — was the scholar and theologian Leo Baeck (1873-1956). Now considered the most prominent 20th-century German rabbi, Baeck survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp and later settled in London, where he served as the chairman of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
Rabbi Leo Baeck, considered the 20th century’s most prominent German rabbi, served as a military chaplain before the Holocaust
But the Jewish military chaplaincy that Baeck and others carried out would be eliminated in the two decades that followed WWI as the Nazis came to power. Hitler re-organized the country’s armed forces into the newly formed Wehrmacht and dismissed all Jews from the military, including the Jewish chaplains, as part of the Nazi persecution of Jewish people across all aspects of society. The Wehrmacht was disbanded in 1945 after the end of WWII.
Nine decades on, the renewed creation of Jewish chaplaincy is seen as a milestone for Germany’s modern armed forces, the Bundeswehr, which was created in 1955.
A state treaty introducing chaplaincy for Jewish soldiers was signed by the German government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany in December 2019.
“That this is possible and becoming a reality after the inconceivable crimes committed by Germany makes me humble and grateful,” said Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at its signing.
The Jewish community in Berlin with more than 11,000 members is once again the biggest in Germany. Its main synagogue is on the Rykestrasse, a red-brick building in a Neo-Romanesque style dating from 1903/04. With seating for over 2,000 it is the second largest synagogue in Europe after the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest.
It’s thought to be one of the oldest synagogues still standing in Europe. It was by chance in the year 1100 that the Erfurt Synagogue survived a medieval pogrom as well as repeated phases of persecution. It was converted into a storage hall and later even used as a ballroom, so its true purpose remained hidden until the 1990s. It was eventually restored and re-opened in 2009 as a museum.
The first settled Jewish communities were established along a north-south passage following the Rhine river between Speyer, Mainz and Worms. The oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe can be found in the synagogue compound in Worms. The tombstones with over 2,000 still legible inscriptions, some dating back to the 11th century, are well worth seeing.
Cologne was one of the largest Jewish communities in Germany during the Weimar Republic. In 1933 there were seven synagogues. On November 9, 1938, during the nationwide pogroms of Kristallnacht, all houses of prayer were destroyed. After the war, the synagogue in Roonstraße was the only one to be rebuilt. Today it is once again a lively center of Jewish culture in Germany.
The first Jewish community in Bavaria was based in Regensburg. In the Middle Ages it was one of the most important in Europe. The first synagogue, which was destroyed in 1519, is today commemorated by a work of art in white stone marking the outline of the synagogue. In 1995, during excavation work, the old remnants were found, leading to the creation of an underground information center.
The synagogue in Bayreuth has a very different history. The building, from 1715, served as an opera house and was only later converted by the Jewish community into a synagogue. Today it is the only surviving Baroque style synagogue in Germany, which is still used today as a place of worship.
The Jewish community in Ulm has had a synagogue again since 2012. Former German President Gauck attended the inauguration, at which he spoke of “a day of joy for all people of good will”. The building, which is oriented towards Jerusalem, is to be the central contact point for Jews in the east of Württemberg and in the Bavarian part of Swabia.
It is the only synagogue in Bavaria to have survived National Socialism almost unscathed. Opened in 1917, the Art Nouveau building is considered one of the most beautiful prayer houses in Europe. The eye-catcher is the 29-meter-high dome, which is decorated with oriental elements. The synagogue also houses the Jewish Cultural Museum, which documents the history of the Jews in Augsburg.
In this region of Germany, Jews were only granted permission to build synagogues in 1737. This simple, timber-framed building dates from this period. The opulent, Baroque-style interior, like so many synagogues in Germany, fell victim to the Nazi “Kristallnacht” pogrom in November 1938. Since 1974, the building has been used once again as a synagogue.
The early 20th century rang in an economic boom for Jews in Germany, which, in turn, inspired a more liberal movement within the Jewish community. This synagogue dates from this era and resembles Assyrian–Egyptian architecture. Neither Nazi pogroms nor the Second World War could fully destroy it. So, to this day, it stands as a testament to the glory days of German Jewish life.
The Old Synagogue in Essen was built between 1911 and 1913. It was one of the largest and most important Jewish centers in prewar Germany, but was severely damaged by the Nazis in 1938. After the war it served first as a museum for industrial design and later as a place of commemoration and documentation. After elaborate reconstruction work it is now home to the “House of Jewish Culture” museum.
The Old Synagogue in Dresden, designed by Gottfried Semper and part of the city’s famous skyline, was destroyed in 1938. More than half a century later, at the same location, this award-winning new building was opened in 2001. Inside the sanctuary, is a cube containing a square worship space, curtained off on all sides, intended to evoke an echo on the scale of the Temple at Jerusalem.
Munich also set out to architecturally mark a new chapter in German Jewish history. The Ohel Jakob, or Jacob’s Tent, synagogue was inaugurated in 2006. The building is part of the new Jewish Center consisting of the synagogue, the Jewish Museum of Munich and a community center funded by the city. With its 9,500 members, the Jewish community in Munich is one of the biggest in Germany.
The rabbinical appointment comes at a time when the German army has been in the headlines over radical right-wing extremism in its ranks. The defense minister spoke Monday at a synagogue in Leipzig, saying that the Jewish military chaplaincy will join the Protestant and Catholic chaplaincies in offering “important support for our soldiers.” The Bundeswehr also announced in 2019 that it intends to recruit Muslim chaplains.
Kramp-Karrenbauer called the appointment “a great sign of trust” and added that “in view of our history, is also a cause for humility.” At the same time, she said, the installation of a military rabbinate indicates “a great commitment to our democracy, for our open, diverse and tolerant society.”
How many Jewish soldiers are currently serving in the Bundeswehr is not known. Currently, the Ministry of Defense estimates there are about 300 Jewish soldiers in the Bundeswehr.
In her remarks at the synagogue on Monday, the defense minister sought to distance Germany’s modern armed forces from the Nazi-era military. “The Bundeswehr has nothing in common with the former Wehrmacht, and that is the only reason why it is possible today for us to introduce a federal military rabbi,” she said.
Balla, who now takes on the title of “federal military rabbi” in addition to his other rabbinical work, hopes in any case that his being in the role contributes to the normality of Jewish life in all aspects of German society. He knows from his experience in youth work “that there are young Jews who can envisage a career as a soldier,” he said in an interview with the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper. “We hope that here in Germany, despite the country’s history, it will eventually become normal for Jews to take this career path.”
Born in Budapest in 1979, Balla is the son of a lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian People’s Army. “I learned from my father to respect the work of soldiers very much,” he says. It is important to him that as a part-time military rabbi, he and 10 other clergypeople — liberal or Orthodox — are not only responsible for accompanying Jewish servicemen and women.
This is not about religious instruction, but about the ethical foundations of soldierly action, says Balla. “It is another important task for us rabbis to also take preventive action against antisemitism among all soldiers. There is a lot to do in this respect,” he says. It must be clear, he adds, “that the Bundeswehr is a place where people are committed to democratic values.”
The father of three is no stranger to trailblazing. When he was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in Munich in 2009, Balla was one of the first Orthodox rabbis who had been trained in Germany since 1938.
Now, the introduction of the first military chaplain in the modern-day Bundeswehr and the start of Jewish military chaplaincy comes as the country celebrates 1,700 years of Jewish life in Germany.
Monday’s event in the small Leipzig synagogue is intended as a clear statement that Jews have a place everywhere in German society.