on the continent

Conference of European Rabbis gets permanent home in Munich as it looks to expand operations

CER President Pinchas Goldschmidt says new headquarters, funding from Bavarian government will help group better prepare rabbis to lead communities

MUNICH — The Conference of European Rabbis opened its first headquarters here on Tuesday night at an event attended by the organization’s president, exiled Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, members of the local Jewish community, visiting rabbis, Bavarian government officials and supporters.

The offices, located in Munich’s tony Maxvorstadt neighborhood, will allow the organization, which has until now operated out of the various leaders’ personal offices, the chance to further professionalize the organization and expand its operations, those involved with the effort told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“We will be focusing on strengthening small communities, strengthening the rabbinate and strengthening the rebbetzins,” Goldschmidt told eJP on the sidelines of the opening. “The rabbis coming out of the yeshivas don’t always know how to run communities.”

The Conference of European Rabbis, which was formed in the mid-1950s, serves as the primary coalition of Orthodox rabbis from across the continent — particularly those who are not affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which is something of a rival — representing their communities’ interests. Most recently, this has focused on protecting religious practices like kosher slaughter, or shechita, and circumcisions as some politicians move to ban them. Goldschmidt said with its new offices and budget, his organization won’t “just be playing defense [on these issues], now we’ll be a bit more proactive” in preventing them before they get to the stage of legislation.

At a press conference before the official opening, Goldschmidt also noted the “many security challenges [facing the Jewish community] in Europe,” including threats from both “radical Islam” and from the “far right.”

The Bavarian government provided the offices, along with an annual budget of €1.5 million ($1.6 million), Florian Herrmann, head of the Bavarian State Chancellery and Bavarian minister of state for federal affairs, said at the press conference.

“For the very first time since the Shoah, an international Jewish organization has chosen to open its headquarters not only in Munich but in Germany,” Herrmann said. “It’s a great milestone.”

Herrmann thanked the conference repeatedly for accepting the government’s offer to open its headquarters in Munich. He stressed that the Bavarian state government is “standing by the promise that we must protect Jewish life in Bavaria.”

Michael Piazolo, Bavarian state minister for culture and education, said the opening of the CER headquarters in Munich “is a gift for us, especially at this time, in this day and age.” Piazolo, whose office has introduced a number of initiatives to educate Bavarians about Judaism, noted rising numbers of antisemitic incidents in Germany in recent years, which he said “scare us.”

The longtime head of the Jewish community in Munich and Upper Bavaria, Charlotte Knobloch, 90, was noticeably moved by the opening of an international Jewish group in her city.

“Those of us who have been around here for quite some time know how important it is that CER and Rabbi Goldschmidt have found a home here,” she said. “Nobody could have expected what is now a reality.”

In her speech at the opening, Knobloch added: “Now the heart of European Jewry beats in Bavaria.”

Knobloch, whose community is now the largest Jewish population in Germany, praised the Bavarian government for its support. She also raised concerns over the rise of the far-right AfD party in Germany, which she referred to as an “antisemitic party,” ahead of the upcoming Bavarian state elections, which will be held on Oct. 8.

“We have been well taken care of by the Bavarian government, and I hope it will continue,” she said, adding: “if the upcoming elections turn out the way I hope.”

The new arrangement between the CER and the Bavarian government emerged after the organization held a convention in Munich last year, at the invitation of the Bavarian government. That event kickstarted the relationship, which led to the offer of opening headquarters in Munich, Goldschmidt said.

This process also occurred at the same time as Goldschmidt fled Moscow, where he’d served as the city’s chief rabbi, due to his outspoken opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Asked if there was a geopolitical reason why Germany might want to embrace him and his organization — as a tacit criticism of Russia — Goldschmidt said he could not say.

“They happened at the same time, but I can’t say for sure that they’re connected,” he told eJP.

Goldschmidt, along with several other members of the CER, credited the organization’s CEO, Gady Gronich, with overseeing the opening of the center and developing the relationship with the Bavarian government.

In the press conference ahead of the opening, Goldschmidt said that opening the headquarters on mainland Europe was in part a response to Brexit. As many of the organization’s operations took place in the United Kingdom, the country’s departure from the European Union made things logistically more complicated for rabbis from EU countries. “But we have not forgotten British Jews,” he said.

To officially open the new headquarters, where a handful of full-time employees will now work (until now they’ve worked remotely), Goldschmidt hung a mezuzah on the front door.

Goldschmidt addressed Germany’s loaded history with the Jews, as well as the specific history of Bavaria. 

“Munich is time and again the key to German-Jewish relations, for the worse and the better,” he said, noting specific pogroms and Nazi actions against the city’s Jewish population.

He recalled CER’s concerns about holding events in Germany in years past because of the Holocaust. But upon considering the growing Jewish community in Germany, the organization decided that “it is our duty to go back to Germany.”

Full disclosure: The Conference of European Rabbis provided eJewishPhilanthropy with transportation and accommodation for its opening.