On May 12, 2015 Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel, addressed the German parliament--fifty years to the day of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Fifty years earlier, President Rivlin had joined those protesting such a relationship. How could the State of Israel establish relations with those responsible for the murder of 1/3 of our people? How dare anyone forgive and thereby defame the memory of the six million?
Thirteen years prior to those protests, Menachem Begin led the fight against accepting reparations from Germany, seeing it as unacceptable blood money - a stance supported by Rav Soloveitchik.
Yet today, Germany is Israel's largest trading partner in the EU, most likely its biggest political supporter in Europe; and ties between the two countries are strong. Germany, more than any other country, has faced the implications of the Holocaust with its education mandatory and its denial a crime. Anti-Semitism still exists here as it always has and always will all over Europe and around the world, but Germans, more than any others, confront the evil committed by their country. On an official level, the recognition of the horrors is deep and desire to make amends in whatever little ways are possible is very real.
President Rivlin summed up his feelings and the feelings of many others when he stated: "Fifty years later, and the Israeli-German connections still awaken in me a certain sense of discomfort. Fifty years later, and today we know that the Israeli-German connections are correct and necessary. It is vital for us, and essential for you. We are forever destined to be entwined together in a sense of pain and in hope."
Unlike many in the Diaspora, few if any in Israel hesitate to buy German cars or any other German product. Israelis come to visit, to invest, to learn and to live in Germany almost in droves. Germany boasts the fastest growing Jewish community in the world outside of Israel, and while thriving may be too strong a word, Jewish life is most active and growing stronger by the day. One may dispute whether that is something positive or not, but it is a fact we must not ignore.
Our time in Berlin overlapped with that of a group if 11 Boston rabbis here as guests of the Government of Germany. In talking with the Consul General of Germany to Boston, who arranged the trip, he mentioned that Germany is Israel's most important ally after the United States. It is Germany, he pointed out, that allows Israel to have, as he put it, "second strike capability" through the selling of submarines to Israel. I found that comment very powerful.
To get a glimpse of German Jewry in the pre-war days, one need look no further than the University of Berlin. Upon entering the University, one sees the pictures on the wall of the 29 Nobel Laureates who taught at the University, including that of Albert Einstein. Fully 1/3 of German Nobel prizewinners were Jewish. Not bad for a country where Jews made up less than 1% of the population. (In contrast, before the war, Jews constituted 10% of the Polish population and over 30% of the population of Warsaw.) While their pictures do not adorn the halls of the University, Jewish luminaries who studied and/or taught in Berlin in the first decades of the 20th century include Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, Rav Chaim Heller, Rav Soloveitchik, Nehama Leibowitz, Rav Yitzchak Hutner. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (who it appears is the one who gave the Lubavitcher Rebbe semicha), Shai Agnon, Rabbi Leo Jung, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, Gershom Scholem, Zalman Shazar, and Professor Yishayahu Leibowitz.
Despite the small size of German Jewry, its influence on the development of Jewry is astounding. It is where the day school movement was founded, where modern Orthodoxy in many varieties was formed and developed. It is German Jewry that created Agudat Israel. In what today would seem like a blatant contradiction, it is the same person, Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who is both the founder of neo-Orthodoxy and the ideological founder of Agudat Yisrael. It was his views on Zionism and on the need for separation from non-Orthodox Jewry that were cornerstones of the basis of the ideology of Agudat Yisrael, founded primarily by his disciples and descendants.
It was in Germany where, for the first time, girls were given a formal Jewish education. While Sarah Schneier founded Bais Yaakov in Krakow, it was her exposure to German Orthodoxy as the family fled West during World War I that gave her the idea and impetus for universal women's Jewish education.
It was in Berlin that the first Orthodox rabbinical seminary was established by Rav Azriel Hildesheimer in 1873. The Berlin Rabbinical Seminary - and the original building is still standing - was the training ground for almost every Orthodox rabbi in Germany from its founding until it was forced to close in 1938. In addition to traditional learning, graduates generally earned a Ph.D. and were trained in the practical aspects of the rabbinate. They recognized the importance of oratory and the enormous power of the sermon. Students were also exposed to another German product, that of Wissenschaft des Judentums, the academic study of Judaism.
These German innovations - shall we call them reforms? - had a most positive impact on Orthodoxy. While this may come as a surprise to many, once these innovations took root, German Jewry had by far the highest rate of retention of youth to Orthodoxy. While in Poland, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania and everywhere else in the Jewish world, people were leaving traditional Judaism in droves, German Orthodoxy managed to retain the vast majority of their youth.
At the same time, the great success of German Orthodoxy was a result and reaction to the great inroads of Reform Judaism, founded in the early part of the 19th century in Germany. Unprepared and unable to effectively deal with emancipation and the freedom Jews were offered, traditional Judaism could not maintain the allegiance of the vast majority of Jews. By the end of the 19th century, 90% of German Jews identified with Reform. Many others were totally lost, having converted to Christianity. For many, Reform Judaism offered a way to maintain their Jewishness while fully partaking of all that Germany had to offer. The success of German Orthodoxy was in its ability to do the same - that is, to provide a way to remain 100% Orthodox while fully partaking of all that Germany had to offer.
It is hard for us to imagine the loyalty of the German Jew - the Orthodox no less than the non-Orthodox - to the "Fatherland." But who could imagine what would happen a mere 50 years later?
 I purposely did not use the term Orthodoxy as Orthodoxy was founded in Germany and Hungary, and did not exist in Eastern Europe. Those were "traditional" communities which, beginning in the 19th century, saw many leaving tradition, i.e., observance. PG I will come back to this important distinction in future posts.