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Rabbi Walter Rotschild

1. Without going into a lengthy autobiography, what caused you to making Judaism so central to your life?

R. RotschildJudaism was always important to my family. My father was very active in our local synagogue (on the Vorstand in different posts for many years.) We attended Friday night services regularly at the Bradford Synagogue, and sang the hymns in the car (!) on the way back home. By the time I was 8 or 9 I knew the Friday service by heart, and then sang in the very small synagogue choir until my voice broke. So - the home background was there.

Also - belonging to a very small synagogue meant that every member was known and valued, and you had to join in !

Judaism remains central to my life because I perceive it to me the only system of thought and religion that allows for personal doubt and anger, that allows for tolerance of other religions, and that doesn’t offer silly answers. In other words, I perceive it to be a religion that makes sense to me as an adult.

2. What is your denominational history? How were you raised? What denominational affiliation do you currently hold? How important is denominationalism to you personally and to Judaism as a whole?

ChanukahThe synagogue I grew up in belonged to the "Reform Synagogues of Great Britain". (This was very much influenced in the 1930’s and 1940’s by refugees from the German Liberal movement, and the word "Reform" does not have the same meaning as it does, say, in America.) As a youngster I attended the summer camps of the Reform Synagogue youth movement. I grew up knowing the Reform liturgy and the way of life, which does NOT involve feeling guilty that one is not Orthodox. (My parents married in the Orthodox synagogue but, because my father was more used to the German style, they joined the Reform.)

In Bradford there are (still) two synagogues; the earlier one (ca. 1870) is the Reform, maintaining a lot of West European traditions; the later one (ca. 1890) is the Orthodox, maintaining a lot of East European traditions. That means that, uniquely in Britain, the two synagogues are friendly with one another, because no one can accuse the Reform of having come along later! We had a joint youth club at one time, and in 1994 there were even discussions (unsuccessful so far) about merging the two, as they are both mow small and struggling financially.

But this means I grew up thinking that Orthodox and Reform could co-operate and be friendly, and it was a big shock to go to University and discover that this was considered impossible everywhere else! But I became involved not only in the "Jewish Society" (which ran Orthodox-style services), but also with the "Progressive Jewish Society", and later became the national leader of "Progressive Jewish Students", organizing seminars for students of whatever background (or none). Technically this group was financed by both the Reform and the Liberal synagogue movements in Britain.

Still later I went to Leo Baeck College, which is sponsored by the Reform and the Liberal movements, trains also rabbis for the Masorti (Conservative) synagogues, and graduates serve all over the world in a variety of congregations, ranging from Orthodox to Reconstructionist.

ChanukahThe College is tiny, but the students are exposed to as wide a variety of congregation as possible; as a Student Rabbi I served two Liberal and one Reform congregation, for a year each, and attended a variety of movement seminars and conferences.

I still felt more ‘at home’ in the Reform, and took a post in a Reform synagogue in Leeds; here, we were the only synagogue which was not "Orthodox" (at least in name), and that meant that any Jew in the whole area who did not "fit in" to an Orthodox congregation would belong to us - some were essentially traditionalists, but had perhaps married a Reform convert; at the other extreme, others were atheists who wanted to ensure that they would eventually have a Jewish burial! It led to a lot of very interesting tensions. But we used the new Reform prayer books, women were fully equal in the services and the administration, and we played a part in regional and national movement work. I was a member of the RSGB "Assembly of Rabbis".

I also got involved in "Limmud", an informal organization which, uniquely in Britain, works across all the denominational boundaries, so that Orthodox and Liberal rabbis could sit in the same room and learn together and from each other. This organization is close to my heart, and I have attended the annual week-long conference maybe 12 times in the last 15 years.

Still later I worked in Europe - in Vienna where the "official" community was able to cope with, and subsidize, all sorts of congregations- but couldn’t accept the Progressive one. That was sad, for Vienna is an international city and a lot of Western Jews were / are living and working there in various organizations, yet the community was afraid to assist them to pray in a manner which they found comfortable. In other European cities I found often the same problem - not so much a "denominational" issue, more a fear of the unknown and a fear of the community dividing, which led to many communal leaderships trying to find an Orthodox rabbi to run a not-very-Orthodox congregation. This is, usually, a recipe for disaster, but they could not see this.

So I went to a Dutch island in the Caribbean where I was the only Rabbi for everyone, and had to care for an enormous variety of tourists, ranging from ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn to very assimilated Jews from Argentina, and lead services to suit whatever the particular minyan that day desired. A very educational experience.

And when I accepted offer of the Berlin position, it was precisely because, although I am designated the "Liberal Gemeinderabbiner", it was within a community that at least was trying to be a real "Einheitsgemeinde" - which means that the denominations exist, but within a framework of mutual co-operation and tolerance. This is very unusual but, as I have indicated, makes me feel more "at Home" (though the scale is very different!)

I think denominations are important. I think Jews are a varied people - we say in the Shema that "God is One", not that "Israel is One" - but I think the denominations should exist to enable Jews to run synagogues, publish liturgies, organize youth camps and so forth, and should not be used as an excuse for adding to communal argument. And I know that the words used to describe the denominations - "Ultra-Orthodox", "Orthodox", "Hasidic", "Reform", "Liberal", "Conservative", "Progressive", "Reconstructionist" or whatever - mean different things in different countries, and different things to different congregations. It is rare to find two synagogues that are alike.

3. Judaism rests on three major categories: God, Torah and Israel. How do you currently understand each of these terms?

God - our awareness that there is a Power in the Universe that is greater than human power, that pre-existed and will post-exist, that is a power of creation.

Thora - al aspects of our tradition and awareness of God. Not just one book dictated on one occasion, but an ongoing process of learning what God means in each generation.

Israel - those who seek to "struggle with God" (which is what the word means) in a constructive and Jewish way, because they know that this is important to them even if they don’t know why.

4. What do you believe to be the central challenge facing contemporary Judaism

a. in general

The central challenge facing contemporary Judaism is for it to learn that it is a religion for Adults, not Children; that it is a deep and pragmatic religion that does not offer silly and simplistic answers to Life’s difficult questions but at least respects the person asking those questions. That it is not just a ceremonial or a list of dietary restrictions, but a conscious and conscientious effort to "struggle with God" and with the meaning(s) of Life.

And our problem is that we have been distracted too easily by various forms of fundamentalists, all of whom offer only a simple answer when the questions are really much more complex.

b. in Berlin

The central challenge in Berlin is two-fold: Firstly: To stop being an "island" where everything is done only because that is the way it has always been done in Berlin... There is a big Jewish world, with an enormous variety of religious and political and cultural creativity - and Berlin, once a center of this creativity, has become a backwater. There is a lot that can be learned by observing how other communities deal with certain issues - of synagogue organization, or services, or education, or integration, or whatever.

Secondly - if this is possible - to transform the very real problems caused by being in the former capital of a murderous regime, into something positive and creative. Now that many of the community are either of a later generation or come from different countries, this should become possible.

5. How are you addressing these challenges

How am I addressing these challenges? By being Me. Because that is all that any Rabbi can ever do, if he is to each honestly. By being a Rabbi who is NOT a Berliner, but who grew up in an offshoot of the German Jewish tradition; by being a Rabbi who has seen a bit more of the Jewish world than many of the community, and who is therefore an active symbol for some of what can be done. So - a bit of an insider, a bit of an outsider.

6. Given that this interview is being used as an introduction to you and your work, what three things do you want people to know about you?

I am a mixture - conservative in some elements, radical in others. I think most people are like that, which is why I do not like people to be simplistically labeled as either one or the other.

I am either an optimistic cynic or a cynical optimist - that means, I always think that things could go well, even while I am expecting them not to.

I am human. I have learned that many people see a Rabbi as some sort of Superhuman figure, someone who was born aged 60 with a deep voice and a dignified mannerism, a Tzaddik. Well- I am a normal person; I get tired, depressed, lose my temper, become impatient, I have loves and desires and a sense of humor, I have a family with whom I also want to spend some time - especially at evenings and weekends, when communities often seem to think the Rabbi should always be available. Add all this together and the word "human" seems to fit.

7. While your interests are wide is it often true that teachers have an essential message they wish to impart. Is that true of you? And, if it is, what is your core teaching?

My core teaching is that we are all mortal and all human. None of our arguments should go on to another generation.

And - when I am teaching Torah - I want to teach people to read between the lines, between the words, and to think for themselves a bit. Not everyone is Rashi - but then, Rashi is not everyone.

8. What is the current focus of your work?

My current focus is trying to learn what is really going on in Berlin, and what the real history behind certain organizations or personalities or disputes is. I want to teach the Berlin Jewish community that it is acceptable to be different from each other, that Pluralism is a fact of Jewish life and not the result of some genetic aberration, that cannot be tolerated. I am trying to work out why so many members of the community are so negative about each other, and what can be done to transform this from ""Sinat Hinam" (causeless hatred) into "Ahavat Yisrael" (Love for the people of Israel)

9. What kind of support are you in need of?

Any I can get!People prepared to worship, to learn, to get involved, to assist in teaching, at whatever level, to tell me the truth ...

And to put up with me when I make mistakes.

10. What helps you to deal with the danger of burn-out?

I wish I could answer this. I have a lot of hobbies and interests, but the problem is finding time and energy for them. I write a lot, when I can - stories, poems, songs, history; I like to find new strength in the Bible and the Liturgy, every time I use them, and I am writing commentaries on these as well. I enjoy travel, and music, and reading - especially history. I have terribly little time for friends - or for family - and keep meaning to manage my time and energy better.

11. When have you been amazed about yourself during the last time?

I have adapted to a variety of communities in a variety of climates, picked up enough language to get by - and have been amazed in recent weeks to get warm letters from former members in Leeds, Sheffield, Vienna and Aruba, who all felt that I had influenced their lives in a positive way. That has been an enormous boost, and helps me to deal with criticism.

12. What is your vision

a. for yourself

The vision keeps changing. I’d like, I thin, to have some sort of impact on "the community", but I know that all rabbis are mortal and, even if they are remembered at a communal level after they have dies, it is usually only in a partial and inaccurate way. But I also know that, at a personal level, rabbis can make an enormous difference. haRebizah J. RotschildI would like to be able to work consistently in such a way that I can keep finding new ideas, keep finding more humor, and keep reasonably healthy until a ripe age.

b. for your family

I am aware of the dangers to Rabbis’ families - that they are expected to be "better" than other families, that the children are expected to be more "religious" than their schoolmates. I think this is wrong, and I want to protect my family from this misunderstanding. Basically, I would like my children to grow up to become healthy and aware and self-confident adults, and I would like my wife to stay "my wife" as well as "the Rebbetzen", and I would like to stay her husband and not just "The Rabbi".

c. for Judaism

For Judaism - there is a mission to fulfill, to make the world a better place, one that is aware of the power of God. ("Letakeyn Olam b’Malchut Shaddai".) We haven’t finished that mission yet, and even if - to cite "Pirke Avot" - we never manage it, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. So I would like Judaism to waste less energy on internal communal political struggles and more time on bringing the world to an awareness of God’s Power and God’s Love. But it won’t be easy.

(January 1999; questions by Iris Noah)

Rabbi Walter Rothschild was the liberal Rabbi of Berlin`s Jewish Community from 1998 - 2000. Actually he is the rabbi of Beth Shalom in Munich and officiates regularly in Cologne (Gesher LeMasoret). He lives in Berlin.

Rabbiner Walter Rothschild:
Kaschruth - pikant gewürzt

Mit britischem Humor will Rabbiner Walter Rothschild die jüdische Gemeinde in Berlin umkrempeln

[Hanukah] [Rabbis in Berlin]

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