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Germany’s military appoints first rabbi since before Holocaust

  • June 21, 2021

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.

Field rabbis in World War I

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. 

A political signal

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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    Erfurt Synagogue

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    Jewish Cemetery ‘Heiliger Sand’ in Worms

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    Cologne Synagogue

    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.

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    The “document” at the Neupfarrplatz in Regensburg

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    The Baroque synagogue in Bayreuth

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    Ulm Synagogue

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    The Great Synagogue of Augsburg

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    The timber-framed synagogue in Celle

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    The Westend Synagogue in Frankfurt

    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.

  • Synagogues in Germany

    The Old Synagogue in Essen

    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.

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    The New Synagogue in Dresden

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  • Synagogues in Germany

    Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich

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    Author: Elisabeth Jahn (sbc), Anne Termèche

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.

German Jewish life across society

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.”

A clear statement in an important year

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.


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