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American Rabbi Chosen to Serve East Berlin Jews

August 15, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ A Holocaust survivor who became a rabbi will be the first Jewish religious leader to be permitted to serve in East Germany in 22 years, the American Jewish Committee said Saturday.

Rabbi Isaac Neuman, 64, who recently retired from Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Champaign, Ill., is scheduled to leave for East Berlin around Sept. 10, in time for the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, said Eugene DuBow, director of the committee’s Community Services Department.

″My expectations are high,″ Neuman said. ″It’s a small community, but intellectual - spiritually hungry.″

″I do expect special challenges, but I think the time is right to bring that community back into mainstream. They have been cut off for 22 years.″

The East German government will allow Neuman to come and go as he pleases and also will pay his salary and provide him with an apartment and a car, said DuBow.

About 600 Jews are known to practice their religion in East Germany, most of them residents of East Berlin.

″Unless we had a rabbi there, unless we did something, in 10 years the Jewish community probably would be gone,″ said DuBow. ″There are not that many of them - nobody to teach the children.″

The effort to send a rabbi to East Germany began in 1983, when DuBow was allowed to bring a delegation to the Communist bloc nation for a day. The group met with Klaus Gysi, the state secretary for religious affairs, and Peter Kirschner, president of the Jewish community in East Berlin.

In 1984, the committee fulfilled Kirschner’s request for kosher wine, prayer shawls and German-language prayer books.

″I think it was the right time in history, just as the East Germans were beginning to look westward a bit,″ said DuBow. ″There seems to be on the part of the German government a desire to refocus on the Jewish community and help the Jewish community rebuild itself.″

Neuman’s East Berlin congregation already has a restored synagogue and a small Jewish community center. The rabbi also will drive around the country to visit six or seven other small Jewish communities, said DuBow.

DuBow said that although the East Berlin congregation is mostly elderly, a new religious awareness is emerging among ″the sons and daughters of Jews and of mixed marriages who are now going back to their roots.″

About 30 to 35 young people attended a Seder the committee held there last spring, he said.

Neuman said he approached the committee when he heard it was trying to find a rabbi for East Germany. One of his first duties will be an international interreligious conference there.

″To translate the Talmud, ‘The calf wants to suckle, the mother wants to nurture.’ A teacher is always interested in teaching,″ he said. ″I found a community with very intelligent people who want to know their origin.″

Neuman was born in Poland and was incarcerated in concentration camps including Auschwitz. His parents, six sisters and one brother died in the Nazi Holocaust that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews.

″I share a lot with the people in that most of them, especially of my generation, are also ex-concentration camp inmates, victims of the Nazis,″ said Neuman.

″It will be difficult. I have many questions and doubts,″ he added. ″It may be more than I can take. But I’m willing to give it a try.″

In addition to supporting Neuman’s work, the East German government also has announced plans for a museum on the site of another synagogue, next to the community center, which was destroyed during ″Kristallnacht,″ a night of destruction against German Jewry in 1938.

″Every government in the world is concerned with how they are looked upon,″ said Neuman. ″They want to do their part.″

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