BERLIN (AP) — The German military got its first rabbi in over a century Monday, with the inauguration to the post of Hungarian-born Zsolt Balla at a synagogue in Leipzig.
The German government in 2019 approved a proposal by the Central Council of Jews to restore religious counseling for Jews serving in the armed forces.
“This was unthinkable for decades and still can’t be taken for granted,” the head of the Central Council, Josef Schuster, said. “That’s why we have all reason to be happy and grateful today.”
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During World War I, many Jews fought for Germany and dozens of rabbis are known to have performed pastoral work in the military. After Adolf Hitler’ came to power in 1933, the Nazis excluded Jews from all spheres of public life, later murdering millions in the Holocaust.
Schuster said Balla would ensure Jewish soldiers can serve in the military in line with their religious rules, and also teach non-Jewish soldiers about Judaism’s traditions and holy days, thereby helping reduce prejudice.
The 42-year-old rabbi, who was ordained in 2009, said he felt “incredible gratitude to be allowed to live in a country that faces its past but has also resolved to go forward and actively make the world better.”
According to German news agency dpa, there are about 300 Jews in Germany’s 180,000-strong Bundeswehr. About half of the country’s military belong to a Christian denomination, while 3,000 are Muslim.
The German army already had only Catholic and Lutheran chaplains, and there are plans to introduce Muslim religious counseling in future.