When Yuri Rosov immigrated to Germany from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 1997, the city in which he ended up, Rostock, had no synagogue, no infrastructure and virtually no money.
Rosov now heads that Jewish community in the former East Germany, which has about 700 members, nearly all of them Russian speakers.
“We have a synagogue and a strong community,” said Rosov, 50, who works for the Maccabee sports association.
In recent years, however, a new challenge has emerged that threatens the future of the Rostock Jewish community and many other similar ones across Germany populated mostly by Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants and their families: Young people are leaving.
“Many people leave to find jobs in Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt,” said Rosov, whose own children have left Rostock. “We are losing our young and active members.”
Two decades since the beginning of a Jewish migration from the former Soviet Union that transformed German’s remnant Jewish community of 30,000 into Europe’s third-largest with an influx of about 200,000 people, the Jewish community of Germany again is undergoing dramatic change. This time it’s the consolidation of Jewish communities.
The Jews from the former Soviet Union who began to come here two decades ago deliberately were placed in small cities and towns throughout the country according to quotas set for all immigrants by the government.
However, a combination of factors is sending the young Jews away to a handful of big cities: the search for a job, growing Jewish engagement that spurs a quest for larger Jewish communities, and the lure of the big city.
The epicenter, of course, is Berlin.
“Berlin is becoming like a Mecca for younger Russian-speaking Jews,” said Alina Gromova, 30, who moved to Germany with her family in 1997 from Ukraine and is writing a dissertation on the urban spaces and practices of young Russian-speaking German Jews. Those coming from smaller cities may be looking for jobs, she said, but many “come to Berlin to look for Jewish life.”
While Berlin’s official Jewish community has 11,000 members, the actual number of Jews in the city is probably much higher. Germany’s capital has 13 active synagogues and a variety of community organizations. But what really draws many young Jewish Russian-speaking Germans here are the employment opportunities and cultural life.
Young Jews are “discovering the bigger cities,” Gromova said.
Furthermore, some of Berlin’s Jewish circles are open even to those who do not qualify as Jews according to traditional interpretations of Jewish law, or halachah. That wasn’t the case in Moscow, says Matvey Girschgorn, 25, who came to Berlin four years ago from the Russian capital.
“I found it quite astonishing, very liberal, and I like it,” he said.
Sergey Lagodinsky, a Berlin attorney who handles integration matters as a member of the board of representatives of the Berlin Jewish community, says it’s not sustainable to have Jewish communities in small towns.
“My view is that we will have maybe eight to 10 communities in larger cities within the next 10 to 15 years,” said Lagodinsky, whose family immigrated to Germany from Russia in 1993.
The trend is accelerated by the immigration policy changes Germany introduced in 2005 that reduced all immigration, including Jewish, to a trickle, as well as by the aging of Jewish populations in smaller German cities.
Irene Runge, a former East Berliner whose Jewish Cultural Association helped the first Russian-speaking Jews adjust to life in Germany, says the new communities formed by the quota system “are going to die out because they are getting old.”
A 2010 survey of 1,200 German Jews found that 71 percent live in big cities. The survey, conducted under the auspices of Potsdam University and the Jerusalem-based L.A. Pincus Fund for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, also found that 41 percent were having extreme difficulty finding jobs.
In Rostock, unemployment is more than 10 percent. The rate is much higher in some former East German areas.
Part of the problem for the Russian-speaking immigrants was that their professional degrees were not always recognized in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged recently to support new legislation that would make it easier for immigrants to have their professional credentials recognized here, but for many the measure comes too late.
“Everyone is looking for their opportunities,” said Mykhaylo Tkach, president of the 400-member Jewish community of Potsdam. “The younger ones look for a job first.”
The migration boom that boosted Germany’s Jewish community has had a clear impact. Twenty years ago, Germany’s Jewish community had a total of 29,089 registered members. Today there are 104,241, and another 127,436 who are unaffiliated. There are four times as many active congregations as there were in 1990, and they are spread out over more than 100 Jewish communities.
It’s “a blessing that we have Jewish communities again in many places which had been blank spots on the Jewish agenda for many, many decades,” said Dieter Graumann, the newly elected head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “It is our aim to strengthen all of them.”
Yet Germany’s tightening of immigration regulations in 2005 ended much of the influx of Russian-speaking Jews. The law required that immigrants be skilled workers or students; many of the Russian-speaking immigrants were retirees or those otherwise dependent on welfare.
“The end of the immigration and the low birth rate coupled with a high death rate are causing the numbers of Jews in Germany to drop,” said Berlin filmmaker Levi Salomon, who grew up in Baku, Azerbaijan, and came to Germany in 1991.
Salomon recently released film “Doswidanja—Schalom—Guten Tag” tells the stories of several immigrant families.
While smaller communities are struggling, larger ones are blossoming, according to Judith Kessler, editor of the Berlin Jewish community’s monthly magazine, Juedisches Berlin.
Kessler says she is hopeful about the future.
“The next generation is creating a Berlin Russian Jewry,” she said. “It has another quality—maybe less like the German original Jewishness” and more Russian Jewishness.