Shall we pack our suitcases?

Dr. Ruth Röcher has been honorary chairwoman of the Jewish community in Chemnitz since 2006. She has been working full-time as a religious education teacher in Saxony for 25 years. A conversation about Jewish life, ideas for peaceful coexistence and the situation in Chemnitz.

Could you give us a short insight into the community life in Chemnitz? What are your duties as chairperson?

That is a big question. Community life… You have to imagine it like this: Religious life is similar to a mini city. From birth to death, everything may happen. Jewish life is basically something that goes along with life as a whole. It’s not that we only deal with the Jewish religion.

When I was elected in 2006, my big task was the trees in our cemetery. Because of their age, they became a danger in upcoming storms: Would they fall down and destroy the historic graves? So suddenly I found myself dealing with trees. Another topic was that we also have many elderly members. The mortality rate averages 15 deaths per year. I soon realized that the space at the Jewish Cemetery would only last for about three years. So I had to start acting. It was a long and difficult process. For both sides – the public authorities and for us. So far concerning death. But we also have weddings – unfortunately far too few – and births of children; if they are boys, they must be circumcised on the eighth day, and yes – everything must be organized.

We also have a kindergarten, which is open to non-Jewish children. In addition to the Saxon education plan, Jewish education is being taught. This means that the children learn the Jewish holidays from kindergarten age on. Then we have pupils who assist religious education. Finally we gained the recognition of Jewish religious education as a regular subject in Saxony. So we also provide lessons at primary schools. Learning is a very important part of Jewish life. Adults also receive lessons at the community center, where they can learn for example the interpretation of the Torah and the words of the wise men.

The synagogue in Chemnitz from inside. On the window the word Chai חי is repeated several times. The word means “life”. As a “window to the world”, it symbolically connects life inside and outside the synagogue. / Photo: Karin Licht

Furthermore, the synagogue is the centre of Jewish life. Every Friday evening and Saturday services are being held. Togehter we celebrate all Jewish holidays.

The congregation contains several associations to look after the members. We have for example the typical Jewish association Bikkur Cholim, which is a pillar of every community. The association takes care of the sick and old members.

We have a women’s association, a sports club and a group that takes care of visually impaired people whose mother tongue is Russian. This latter group is already a speciality. I think we are the only Jewish community in Germany that cares for this group of people with disabilities, no matter what religion they belong to. We even have an audio library in Russian. The audio files are being sent throughout Germany. The audio files come from a large audio library in Moscow.

Our choir is well known in the city. Before emigrating from what is now Belarus, the choir leader was ranked 10th in the entire Soviet Union. She has built up an adult choir in Chemnitz, which often performs in the city. We also have a dance group for women, which deals with Israeli folk dances and rehearses weekly in the community hall. Both groups also accept people who are not Jewish. As you can see, life here is very much on the move.

How many members are there currently?

At the moment there are 550 members. But it is not the case that all Jews living in the city are members of the congregation. Some do not want to join.

What are your favorite tasks as chairperson?

As chairperson, I am constantly confronted with surprises. I know that problems would occur every day and I notice how this affects my employees. From my point of view this is part of our work and we simply have to find a way to solve the problem. I like the fact that I have learned over the years, that bad news do not cause me any panic. It’s just part of the game when you’re working with so many people in so many fields. I just see it as a challenge and I know that in the end everything will be okay. I also really like the fact that there are such good people working along with me in the community board, and that when we are dealing with issues there are often many different ideas compared to my own ones. Then it is my job as chairperson to implement the project, but the decisions are being made together. I also think it is wonderful that all ideas and dreams in the area of culture can be turned into reality. We get a lot of support from all sides in Chemnitz.

Leading the community requires an incredible amount of energy and time. It is an honorary position besides work and family. I am willing to carry a lot, but I expect a similar commitment from the board and the employees. But what I really like is the work with children and young people. I have been the only Jewish religious educationist in Saxony for 25 years. I also teach and organize leisure activities for my students, such as meetings, excursions, joint weekends, etc. This work gives me the strength for my honorary office as chairperson.

That sounds very nice. You mentioned earlier that the kindergarten is open to everyone – do you think this idea could be developed further among the city?

I founded our kindergarten in 2011 as a Jewish kindergarten. It would not have been possible without the help of the city of Chemnitz. All in all it is a very small group. Since 2015, there have been some discussions on the level of city administration, where I always emphasized that an inter-religious kindergarten would be good for Chemnitz. A place where the children would get to know each other from a very young age and where prejudices are torn down, also on the side of the parents. The children would play together and become friends, regardless of which religion they belong to.

Foto: Karin Licht

Was there any response from the city?

Yes, everyone thinks it is wonderful.

Now someone has to make it happen.

Exactly. But I am not doing it. It was a difficult task starting the Jewish kindergarten in 2011. The initiative should come from the city, but the Jewish community would be open to help and cooperate. However, our forces are not sufficient for the overall coordination.

Does your daily work include any other aspects of intercultural dialogue?

The already retired Pastor Brenner, who is very active in the context of the Chemnitz Peace Day, conducts interreligious talks. He also introduced an interreligious bus tour some years ago. On a Sunday in autumn, the residents of Chemnitz were invited to take a bus to five or six stations of different religions among the city of Chemnitz (various churches, the synagogue, mosque, Baptists, …). During the stops they had a conversation with representatives of each religion. It really was something very meaningful. But I think the project does not exist anymore.

Since the so-called wave of refugees, there has been a project sponsored by the Central Council of Jews in Germany and supported by the BMI. in which we are also participating. The project is called “Do you know who I am?“ and consists of meetings of the three religions.

Furthermore there is a Christian association in Chemnitz, called Brücke e.V., which has initiated joint projects with the Jewish community. There were seminars, lectures, as well as joint trips to Buchenwald and Weimar etc.

Did refugees also take part?

Yes, the larger group were refugees. Unfortunately only few people of our community participated.

Can you recently observe effects of an increasing anti-Semitism on the life of the local community or are there members who are considering leaving Chemnitz, Saxony or Germany because of the increasing influence of right-wing policy?

Among us Jews we use the metaphor of the suitcase. We talk about “packing our suitcase” when things start to get tricky around us. When “the suitcase is unpacked”, we feel good and stay, but as soon as we ask ourselves: “Where is my suitcase?” insecurities are involved.

Anti-Semitism has always been there latently in Chemnitz. Often it is expressed as Israel criticism and these people who criticize Israel don’t even realize that their thoughts are anti-Semitic. I accept any criticism of Israel, because it is legitimate to criticize any country and any policy, but the question is always how to formulate and justify your criticism.

In some schools the swearword “You Jew” is circulating, but our students, who were born and grew up here in Chemnitz, don’t consider this swearword as anti-Semitic. This also applies to headmasters and teachers at schools in Chemnitz, which frightens me even more.

Did you observe changes, did it get worse?

It remained the same. Well, we haven’t received anti-Semitic anonymous letters for years. I remember when I came in 1994, there were occasional ugly phone calls or letters Then there was nothing for a long time. Since the appearance of the AFD with their rhetoric, some people feel strengthened to hurt or attack us, but motstly anonymously or using wrong address. Nevertheless, I cannot say that it really got worse here in Chemnitz.

I can only say that we are afraid since the attack in Halle. The police are now on patrol for 24 hours, otherwise many members would not come or would not send their children to school. There has always been a police patrol, but now they are here permanently.

Since the summer of 2018 Chemnitz has got a bad international reputation. Nazis marched through the city. The community board discussed how we should react. Our decision was to continue our cultural and religious program despite our fear. And indeed, whenever we invite to a concert or lecture in our house, many people from Chemnitz attend. Also on the day of the opening of the Days of Jewish Culture at the beginning of March we had 300 residents of Chemnitz in the synagogue. For me, this is the answer of the city’s population – as an indirect statement that we are accepted here and which shows that a large part of the citizens welcome that we are there.

Unfortunately, this year we will have to cancel some acts because of Corona. Certain guests from Israel cannot come. But this we cannot change.

What are your personal wishes for the community and the city or what demands do you have on politics and the people?

Because of history we as Jews – and this does not only concern the Jewish community of Chemnitz – are very sensitive: What is happening within the society now? Will people become more right-wing orientated? Shall we pack our suitcases? We are worried, just like many other citizens, about the increasing populism, which unfortunately is already quite successful in Germany. That is our biggest concern.

There are families and individuals among our community, who are leaving Germany, but not directly because of the events of 2018. There have always been people, including young people who came as children, who pack their bags as young adults and leave Germany. One does not wait until the end. If you feel insecure, you can change your situation.

In Germany there are many reasonable, democratic forces. I am an optimist and I trust in these forces. I wish for the city of Chemnitz that we will be the Capital of Culture in 2025 and that the decision to find a partner city in Israel will be implemented quickly. For the communitiy itself I hope the construction site to be finished as soon as possible, because we have been renovating the community house and repairing construction defects for years.

Thank you very much for taking time for a conversation. If we use dialogue as an opportunity, we can all live and learn together.

Dr. Ruth Röcher is chairwoman of the Jewish Community/ Photo: Jewish Community Chemnitz

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