The German military got its first rabbi in over a century Monday, with the inauguration to the post of Hungarian-born Rav Mordechai Eliezer (Zsolt) Balla at a shul 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.
The 42-year-old rabbi, who was ordained in 2009, said he felt “incredibly grateful 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.”
Rav Balla, who was born in Budapest in 1979 to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father who was a senior Hungarian officer, didn’t know he was Jewish until he was nine years old. His childhood was spent on military bases and religion played no part in his life.
When he was nine, an invitation to a church caught his interest and he asked his mother if she would accompany him there. Her response was not what he expected, as his mother took the opportunity to reveal her Jewish background, and told him that she and her parents were Holocaust survivors.
Rav Balla was 12 when the Communist regime in Hungary fell and he enrolled in a Jewish high school funded by Ronald Lauder and became committed to Yiddishkeit.
Rav Balla met his wife in Berlin and became one of the first Rabbanim ordained in Germany since 1938. He and his wife and three children now live in Leipzig.
“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.”
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.
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.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem & AP)