First Chief Rabbi of the German Army for 100 years
An exclusive interview with Rabbi Zsolt Balla, who has just been appointed Germany’s first Jewish chaplain for over a century.
For the first time in over a hundred years, the German army has a Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Zsolt Balla, a popular rabbi of the German city congregation of Leipzig, was installed as military chaplain on Monday, June 28, 2021. The Bundeswehr, the German army, hopes to have ten Jewish chaplains working alongside their Christian counterparts to provide pastoral assistance to German soldiers.
Prior to his installation, Rabbi Balla spoke with Aish.com, explaining his unique life story and sharing his hopes to rebuild Germany’s Jewish community.
Originally from Budapest, Rabbi Balla’s family kept their Jewishness a secret for years. During her early childhood in Communist Hungary, Rabbi Balla’s mother never mentioned that their family was Jewish.
This decision stems from an unimaginable trauma. After Germany invaded Hungary in 1944, Rabbi Balla’s grandparents, like other Jews, were murdered by the Nazis. Thanks to the kindness of neighbors and non-Jewish benefactors, they managed to escape the Holocaust that killed 565,000 Hungarian Jews.
Rabbi Balla’s grandfather worked as an electrician and was highly regarded by his non-Jewish neighbors. During the Holocaust, they helped him hide in the attic of his workshop. Rabbi Balla’s grandmother and his mother were rescued by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was posted to Budapest, where he did all he could to save Hungarian Jews. He issued Swedish protective passports to Jews – including Rabbi Balla’s mother and grandmother – identifying them as Swedish citizens. Wallenberg managed to save over 11,000 Hungarian Jews in this way. (Arrested by the Soviets at the end of the war, he died under mysterious circumstances in a Soviet prison some time after the war.)
At the end of World War II, Rabbi Balla’s mother and grandmother took refuge in a basement, hiding from the fierce fighting that engulfed Budapest. “My mother’s first memory in life is of a Russian soldier entering the basement and freeing them,” notes Rabbi Balla. “The first three years of his life were in hiding. “
Rabbi Balla’s father was a staunchly atheist non-Jewish Hungarian, and together he and Rabbi Balla’s mother have been silent about their family’s Jewish identity – with one exception. When he was a baby, Rabbi Balla’s mother arranged for him to have a brit milah. It was an incredibly risky decision in Communist Hungary. At that time, Rabbi Balla’s father was serving as a senior official in the Hungarian army: if it was revealed that his son was Jewish and had had a Jewish breakdown, his career could have suffered.
His father did not attend the breakage so he could have a plausible denial in case it was discovered.
Growing up, Rabbi Balla loved to read the Bible, amused by its many colorful stories and accounts. In 1998, when he was nine, he recalled that “everyone knew that the (communist) system was over” and that change was on the horizon. A local Roman Catholic church announced it would offer Bible classes and Rabbi Balla asked to go.
Instead of agreeing, her mother explained their long-hidden family history. Rabbi Balla felt like he was going home: “I was fascinated by that,” he recalls. He enjoyed learning details about his family history and Jewish life. “It was like reading a book and discovering that it your family. ”He discovered that his grandfather had been a Levy.
“In the 1990s, there was a big wave of a return to Jewish life in Hungary,” recalls Rabbi Balla. “In Hungary alone, there were three Jewish schools”, established after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Rabbi Balla attended a Jewish high school established by the Ronald S. Launder Foundation. The school had over 300 Jewish students, all of whom were discovering Judaism for the first time.
His Jewish journey was aided by a network of Jewish summer camps run by various Jewish organizations in Hungary – in particular Camp Saravas, also run by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. The camp brings together hundreds of Jewish children from all over Europe to spend a summer in a Jewish environment in Hungary. “I knew I was Jewish but I didn’t yiddishkeitSays Rabbi Balla, using the Yiddish word to adopt a Jewish lifestyle. At 17, he decided to start incorporating more Jewish practices into his daily life.
He began by going to the synagogue every Monday and Thursday while reading the Torah, and praying with tefillin. From there, Rabbi Balla’s commitment to Jewish practice grew, incorporating Jewish holidays and Shabbat. At 23, he enrolled in Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin, the only Orthodox rabbinical school in Germany – heir to a famous rabbinical academy closed by the Nazis in 1938. He received rabbinical ordination in 2009.
Unlike many Orthodox rabbis, with the exception of a year spent in Israel, Rabbi Balla lived his life in mainland Europe. This gives him a unique perspective on the needs of the European Jewish community.
Special Jewish community in Germany
As he increased his Jewish engagement, Rabbi Balla befriended a large group of other young European Jews who were also discovering their Jewish identity. Many of these Jews were from the former Soviet Union. Since the end of the Soviet Union, more than 100,000 Soviet Jews have settled in Germany, revitalizing Jewish life in the country.
“I never thought I would marry a Russian-speaking girl,” laughs Rabbi Balla, but when he met Marina, who had left the Soviet Union for Leipzig with her family at the age of 13, he fell apart. realized he had found his life. partner. Like him, Marina was determined to help nourish Jewish life in Germany. They married in 2007 and moved to Leipzig in 2010, where Rabbi Balla assumed the leadership of the synagogue in Leipzig, one of only two synagogues in the German state of Saxony to survive the Holocaust.
The vast majority of the 1,300 Jews in Leipzig today are Russian-speaking, including their own children. He was asked why Jews live in Germany and why he stays to serve this unique community. He answers with a question to himself.
“What if, about 25 years ago, God came to you and said, ‘I have 150,000 former Soviet Jews: where should I take them? Rabbi Balla points out that some non-European Jews might suggest that this massive community of Jews were better off in Israel, the United States, Britain or other sites.
“But God did not ask you to,” notes Rabbi Balla. “He dropped them off in Germany. Now that such a large community has established itself in Germany, he feels an obligation and an excitement to help these Jews grow.
Additionally, Rabbi Balla points out that other places with a strong Jewish community, such as the United States, were once considered less desirable places to live a fully Jewish life. “You have no idea how it’s going in the long run,” he stresses. “I must do all my part to help it prosper.”
The challenges of anti-Semitism
German Jews have come under fire in recent years. Anti-Jewish hate crimes have risen sharply over the past year. In 2020, there were 2,351 anti-Semitic crimes directed against German Jews. A recent German report found that the neo-Nazis were responsible for most of the crimes, although Muslim immigrants were also responsible for many of the attacks. One of the most high-profile incidents came in 2019, when a neo-Nazi shot two people while trying to break into a synagogue in the city of Halle on Yom Kippur.
Nazism remains a persistent problem. In 2020, Germany partially disbanded its Special Commando Forces (KSK) after members made Nazi salutes and pledged allegiance to neo-Nazi precepts. In 2021, an elite police unit in Frankfurt was also disbanded after officers expressed neo-Nazi remarks and shared Nazi symbols in group discussions. In 2021, a German army officer was put on trial for planning attacks while posing as a Syrian refugee in order to stoke anti-immigrant sentiments.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said anti-Jewish crimes are “not only disturbing but also deeply shameful in the context of our history”. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said she hoped the appointment of Rabbi Balla would prove to be a “contribution against the rise of anti-Semitism, extremism and populism in society.”
For Rabbi Balla, the crisis of anti-Semitism in Germany is not just a German problem, it is part of a growing threat against Jews around the world. He points out that American Jews have also been rocked by the same extreme hatred of Jews that exists in Germany. “It would be very dangerous to see this only as a German problem. When it comes to anti-Semitism, we are all in this boat together “
While numerous reports have called Rabbi Balla the first Jewish chaplain to the Bundeswehr since the Nazis took power in 1933, he points out that he is in fact the very first Jewish military chaplain in German history to serve. in peacetime. Former Jewish chaplains served only in times of war.
While the number of Jews in the German army is tiny – estimates put it at between 80 and 300 soldiers – Rabbi Balla will look after all the soldiers, helping them maintain religious traditions.
“My goal is simply to strive to establish an environment where being a Jewish soldier in the German military is as natural as it is in any other modern NATO country.” He explains that a key element of the Bundeswehr today is that all soldiers undergo ethical training so that they never repeat the brutality of the Nazi years. “I and the future Jewish army chaplains will have to play a very active role in this area. We are all responsible for each other. “
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