BERLIN (AP) — Under the golden dome of the Berlin synagogue, elderly worshippers traded shoves and obscenities flew. A man held up his phone to film the ruckus; the leader of the city’s Jews snatched it away. Then punches began to land in a chaotic scrum, a man rammed a table into another’s stomach, and demurely clad women put each other in chokeholds. Police had to be called to restore calm.
The ugly scene, described in interviews with witnesses and seen on an Internet video, is indicative of a Berlin Jewish community in crisis — riven by cultural rivalries, its finances under official scrutiny. It’s hard to say who is at fault, but the feuding is fed at least in part by a clash between an old guard of German Jews dating to before World War II, and a growing presence of relative newcomers from the former Soviet Union.
What is clear is that the 10,000-member Jewish Community of Berlin, having experienced a stirring post-Holocaust rebirth, now fears it’s in danger of falling apart. And Berlin authorities are so alarmed by alleged financial irregularities that they have suspended millions of euros (dollars) in subsidies the community has enjoyed for decades.
“The quarrels highlight the demoralization that has been taking place in this community,” Lala Suesskind, who headed the Jewish Community of Berlin until February 2012, told The Associated Press. “The community is in such a hopeless situation that even violence and intimidation are being used. That’s unprecedented.”
At the center of the storm is Gideon Joffe, who was elected nearly two years ago as community president, and whose leadership style has alienated members even as he comes under official scrutiny of his financial management.
The brawl in the famed Neue Synagoge on Oranienburger St. erupted last May after the Berlin Senate, the community’s main source of funding, made a stunning announcement: It was cutting off payments for the community’s salaries until Joffe explained why his latest budget included an 11 percent increase in subsidies for personnel costs — a jump of about 600,000 euros (more than $800,000). Joffe refused to give details of where the money would go — or even the number of staff the community employs.
The city responded by blocking the funds — and the community was unable to pay salaries.
Joffe declined to be interviewed, but his spokesman, Ilan Kiesling, speaking to the AP, said: “A small group from the opposition is trying again and again to create a bad atmosphere in public, even though the community’s institutions are working very well. The opposition does in no way reflect the entirety of this community.”
The Senate pays about 5.5 million euros a year toward community salaries — 40 percent of the total — and can’t calculate the budget without knowing exactly how many employees are involved, city officials said. Estimates provided by Joffe of between 300-350 persons on the payroll are too vague, they said.
“We are happy to provide money to the Jewish community. We’re eager to support its growth, and due to our historical responsibility we’re willing to be generous,” said city spokesman Guenter Kolodziej. “After the war, the rebirth of Jewish life was worth its weight in gold.
“However, we are obligated to control how the money is being spent, and we weren’t able to do so.”
Joffe has sued Berlin over the interruption of subsidies and a decision is expected this year. Meanwhile, a temporary court order obliges the city to pay what it owes under previous agreements, but it is still refusing to hand over the extra 11 percent demanded by Joffe.
The overall amount of public money the community receives is determined by the deal it struck with the Berlin state parliament in 1994. It entails paying the community a lump sum for employees’ salaries and further contributions for schools, nursing homes and synagogues — adding up to 18.5 million euros a year.
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.”