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Twenty Years Later
One year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany was formally united once more on Oct. 3, 1990. At that time, there were approximately 25,000 Jews in the country; however, the nation would soon find itself facing an unprecedented influx of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union and its break-away bloc states.
In the last two decades, Germany's Jewish population has quadrupled, thus permanently transforming the country's community. Yet challenges remain, as many strive to overcome the hurdles of integration and assimilation in their adoptive home.
During the years of Joseph Stalin's reign with an iron fist, the early regimes of the German Democratic Republic were far from ideal for the Jewish community. Jewish members of the communist party found themselves tagged as "Zionist agents," while others faced Soviet purging trials in Prague and Budapest.
Due to increasing sentiments of anti-Semitism at that time, some 600 East German Jews were able to flee to the West in 1953.
Tensions did ease after the Communist leader's death in the spring of that year, although enterprising Jewish life in the GDR remained at a minimum. Two Jewish schools and a kosher butcher did exist, and the first publication of the East German Jewish newspaper, Das Nachrichtenblatt, was released in 1961.
Since 1991, under Germany's "Jewish immigration" guidelines, approximately 220,000 visa applications have been submitted; only half of those were Jewish by definition of halachah.
As reported by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which represents the 107 Jewish communities and 23 regional associations on the federal level, there are now roughly 120,000 registered members, making it the third largest in Europe after England and France.
This dramatic rise in numbers has led to new synagogues springing up across Germany as visitors can attest. The country has also seen the re-establishment of the Orthodox Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, as well as the opening of the Abraham Geiger College.
Although each institute has ordained new rabbis, "many communities have to make do without," according to the Central Council.
According to Maya Zehden, director of public relations at Berlin's Jewish Community Center (Jüdisches Gemeindehaus), "the main problem for most immigrants is the lack of knowledge of the German language, and relevant information regarding German laws and bureaucracy; housing; day care; health care; and the building of contacts within the community. These are very important to daily life in a foreign country and in a new environment."
In 1998, an integration office in Berlin was set up by the Jewish community to help Ashkenazi Jews deal with such issues.
"It's a surreal feeling for me to be here," explains Anja Volvovsky, a Jewish Russian-American originally from Moscow, but now living in Berlin. "When I first came here, in order to further my professional career as an opera singer, that feeling of the past became much more apparent: Eastern Berlin's Communist-style prefab apartment towers, the city's Holocaust Memorial and the many inscribed golden plaques, which reflect what took place to Jews in a certain building during World War II, are all reminders to me that the past is always present here.
"While I was living in the United States, I knew that there were people I could turn to if I wanted to celebrate Shabbat on Friday evening," but not here, she adds.
Today, the Jewish population is a major contributor to the continual enrichment of the country as a whole.
Yet there are those who are still seeking to find their place in a perpetually transforming world.