Krefeld, Germany native Birgit Elke Klein came to Philadelphia several years ago for two purposes: to become a rabbi and to discover the hype behind a German street name.
“It’s interesting for the history of Philadelphia, because the first German settlers who founded Germantown came from Krefeld,” she noted, wearing a rainbow-colored kippah. “When I went to elementary school, I went every day to Philadelphia Street. At one point in my life I thought, ‘What’s Philadelphia?’”
Questioning the little things is what changed the life of Klein, who grew up in a Protestant family with few Jews in her hometown. They were not religious.
But from the age of 7, after her grandfather mentioned the possible Jewish heritage of her maternal grandmother, she became intrigued.
Just knowing that her grandmother may be of Jewish descent was enough for her to pursue Judaism on her own.
By 1984, she had explored Jewish studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and again in 1992 for her Ph.D. studies.
She took intensive Hebrew classes, which convinced some that she was a native Israeli. (In addition to German, English and Hebrew, she speaks French and bits of Italian and Polish.)
She practiced Judaism more frequently, attending services, fasting on Yom Kippur and going to Passover seders.
She tried to find her way by studying Protestant theology, but was always drawn to Judaism.
A friend at Hebrew University introduced her to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, but she wouldn’t cross the ocean for roughly 20 years.
“She was the first female rabbinical student I met in my life because at the time there was no liberal Judaism in Germany.”
Klein said liberal Judaism wasn’t introduced in Germany until the 1990s, and it is still an uncommon practice.
Most of the Jews lived in West Berlin, she said. Judaism was reintroduced to the eastern side after the wall fell.
“At the time, I experienced how the city grew together,” she said of the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It was very visible still, the difference between West Berlin and East Berlin, and people of West Berlin normally did not live in East Berlin and the other way around.”
Her hometown had one congregation with about 100 members. Services were only held for Kabbalat Shabbat without a full-time rabbi.
She attended shul there, and later in Jerusalem, Berlin and Heidelberg, Germany.
“But the services were Orthodox services and women were sitting separated from men and had no role in the services, so it was very difficult for me somehow to accept this,” she said.
By the time she started her academic career in 1993 at the Free University of Berlin, she considered herself religious. Still, she did not convert.
“It made no difference for me at this time if I was officially Jewish or non-Jewish because if you cannot participate in an active way in the services as a women, then you cannot have aliyah.”
The choice not to convert also impacted her career. She didn’t want to create the illusion that she converted for opportunistic reasons.
At the institution she worked for in Germany, all lecturers and professors had to be Jewish to teach Jewish studies.
“As somebody being Jewish, I could get an easier job,” she said. “Because there were no Jews from Germany who already had academic standing, our professors at this time were mostly professors from Israel with a German background. Of course, it would have been much easier to get a position there if I had converted, but I decided not to do it because no one can say I did it for opportunistic reasons.”
But by 2006, she became the chair of the History of the Jewish People at Heidelberg University of Jewish Studies, the first time the position was offered to a non-Jew.
“So I was proud, too, because I knew that I got it because of my academic standing,” she said.
She came to Philadelphia in 2011 for a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. For two decades, she had already kept kosher and Shabbat.
“I waited long enough,” she admitted. “I waited for many years, about 20 years already, and there were all the reasons not to convert, and at this time I decided to convert.”
Klein is active with Society Hill Synagogue. As she was already into her rabbinical studies, she skipped a Bat Mitzvah and opted for a simple Shabbat service.
“There were a lot of reservations of conversions from Germany regarding Germans who are converting,” she noted. “There are people … [who believe] the Germans who convert to Judaism are descendants of Nazi officers and that they want to deny the Nazi background of the family, which is not true for my family. They were not involved in any Nazi professions.”
Klein graduated from the RRC June 11. She’s soon moving back to Heidelberg to work as a Jewish studies professor.
There are still few positions for liberal rabbis in Germany, she said, and even fewer for female ones, but she’s trying to change that.
She’s in talks with a liberal congregation in Strasburg, Germany to expand the community — and possibly take a pulpit position.
Being a female rabbi is still a challenge in Germany, but that doesn’t stop her.
Where she will be living, the congregations are called “unified,” led by male rabbis in Orthodox services. The rationale stands that everyone can attend Orthodox services but Orthodox Jews cannot attend liberal services.
“More and more women say, ‘OK, we cannot attend Orthodox services either because we feel disrespected.’
“That’s why there are more and more Jews looking for liberal services, too. This is something very new.”
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