AP Enterprise: Brawl hurts Berlin Jewish community

By Kirsten Grieshaber

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12 2014 8:24 a.m. MST

That treaty followed the fall of Communism in 1989, when some 200,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union were allowed to settle in Germany.

Julius Schoeps, a member of a prominent German Jewish family, says he quit the organization because he was fed up with Joffe's leadership. But he added that the overall problems were long in the making, stemming from the huge sums Berlin doled out over the years without demanding a full accounting. "I told Berlin lawmakers years ago to check where the money is going, but they always replied they were too afraid to be depicted as anti-Semites to conduct any thorough controls," he said in an interview.

Schoeps and others blame the current troubles in part on what they see as a cultural rift between the long-established German Jews and the relative newcomers who now outnumber them.

Albert Meyer, a former community leader, says: "The Russian immigrants and also the next generation that already grew up in Germany don't have any kind of democratic understanding. They let themselves be suppressed and don't show any resistance."

Very few on either side are willing to speak out publicly on this sensitive matter, but among issues the Germans raise is the hefty dues that they pay for community welfare programs to help low-income Russians, while the Russians feel left out and rejected by the establishment.

Berlin's 40,000 Jews of today are still a far cry from its flourishing community of 120,000 before the Third Reich, and the city's Jews have never regained the cultural and intellectual prominence they enjoyed before Hitler's rise. Still, Berlin now has Germany's biggest Jewish community, and the troubled Jewish Community of Berlin accounts for only a quarter of them. The rest — mostly Israelis, Americans and former Soviets — have their own arrangements.

Joffe's family was originally from Latvia, which has a large Russian population, and as he advanced up the community hierarchy, he successfully lobbied the Russian immigrants for support.

Joffe, 41, faces accusations from some high-ranking community board members of highhandedness, poor management, neglect of the community's schools and nursing homes, and lack of transparency, especially in financial transactions. These tensions culminated in the fight among the community's 21 elected representatives in May.

On top of the conflict over subsidies, city officials have asked the community to repay almost 6 million euros in pensions on the grounds that community employees received excessive retirement pay for years.

"Joffe is destroying the community," Meyer, the ex-community leader, said in an interview. "It has become like a gravy-train society."

 However, Jakov Dolgoj, 42, a businessman of Latvian origins who has known Joffe since childhood, painted a very different picture of who is to blame.

"The state of things in the community is a catastrophe," Dolgoj said. "But it's definitely the opposition that's behind all the fights. They don't like the change of power." Dolgoj alleged that the community was mismanaged for 20 years, and that former leaders and employees stole from the community. Joffe, he said, was simply trying to bring the group back onto the right path.

There's no doubt Joffe has proven divisive.

As one of his first acts as a community leader, he ordered the board of representatives to approve a monthly salary for him of over 10,000 euros ($13,000). Most of his predecessors served without pay.

Community members and former employees confirm that many high-profile officials were fired, quit or were demoted, including the principals of the Jewish kindergarten, elementary school and high school; the head of the community nursing home; the synagogue's spokeswoman; and the leaders of the social, real estate, anti-Semitism and religious departments.

Spokesman Kiesling said it was normal for a new regime to replace staff. "Mr. Joffe broke up hidebound structures and is taking the community ahead with his managerial expertise," he said.

Opposition members say they have collected around 1,900 signatures — dozens more than needed — to press for new elections within six months. If that fails, many say they will break away and found their own group.

"It hurts to give it all up and let it all go to the dogs," said Tuvia Schlesinger, 61. The soft-spoken, retired police official comes from a Berlin family that left for Israel after the Holocaust and returned here in 1959. He is now a leading opposition member.

"My parents helped rebuild this community after the war," he said. "I'd hate to see it break apart completely."

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