When Shlomo Afanasev and his parents set out to make a new life for themselves late last year, they had choices. The country where they lived--Uzbekistan--was an economic basket case, and its 2,000-year-old Jewish community had all but disappeared. It was time to go to a place where they'd be welcomed as Jews, and where they'd have opportunities. They considered going to Israel. But like thousands of other Jews from the former Soviet Union, they decided instead to settle in Germany. "The political and economic situation in Israel is terrible," says Afanasev, speaking over a kosher lunch in a Berlin yeshiva. "Here life is so much better."
Jewish immigration and an increasingly vibrant cultural life have even fueled talk of a German-Jewish renaissance. "We never thought it could happen," says Michael May, executive director of Berlin's Jewish Community organization. "Jewish life is thriving here again 60 years after the Holocaust." In perhaps the most delicate of ironies, Germany last year passed Israel as the leading destination for Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union: 19,262 admissions, compared with 18,878 for Israel.
Germany is attractive, in part, because it grants all Jews from the former Soviet Union citizenship and automatic government benefits. And as the Jewish community grows, it becomes a magnet for more newcomers. Germany's pre-war Jewish community of 500,000 was just 15,000 after the war. Now, it's back up to 200,000. More than 60 synagogues have been built or refurbished in the past few years, many in cities where Jewish life had been all but extinguished.
There are complications: as many as 30 percent of the immigrants aren't recognized as Jews by German rabbis because their mothers weren't Jewish. (For Soviet authorities, the father passed on his "nationality," whereas in Jewish rite, it's the mother.) The head of Germany's Central Council of Jews last year asked the government to remove "improper" Jews from the applicants. But the German Foreign Ministry refused: never again, officials said, would Germans sort out who is a Jew. Meanwhile, anti-Semitic graffiti and street attacks on Jews have been rising again (most seem to be committed by Muslim youths). Some Jewish leaders are calling it "a miracle" that Jewish life is flourishing in Germany at all. "What better revenge against Hitler," says Rabbi Yehudi Teichtal, director of the Chabad Lubavitch Berlin, "than when I take a hundred happy Jewish children from summer camp and walk with them through the old streets of Berlin?"