Rabbi Antje Yael Deusel found out she was Jewish when she was 16.
“It was a cultural shock for me,” she said in an interview after conducting a Friday evening service in a synagogue in Bamberg, Germany. “But Judaism became an important part of my life.”
To say the least.
Rabbi Deusel, who was born in Nuremberg and completed her rabbinical training at the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, discovered her Jewish roots by chance.
In 2011, she became the first German-born female to be ordained as a rabbi in Germany since the Nazi era.
Her predecessor, Regina Jonas, paved the way.
Born in Berlin in 1902, she studied with Rabbi Leo Baeck, a spiritual leader of the German Jewish community, and received her ordination as a Reform rabbi in 1935.
Unable to find a pulpit due to sexism, she worked as a chaplain in Jewish institutions. In 1942, she was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she continued to work as a rabbi. In the autumn of 1944, she was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was 42.
Rabbi Deusel, 52, regards Rabbi Jonas as something of a role model. But unlike Rabbi Jonas, she was raised as a Christian, her partially Jewish mother having distanced herself from the Jewish component of her ancestry.
I interviewed Rabbi Deusel, a friendly and approachable person, in Bamberg, a quaint town of 70,000 inhabitants in southern Germany where she lives and works.
I met her one evening at Or Chaim, a synagogue where she has preached for the past two years, and which was daubed with antisemitic graffiti in 2011.
The service was attended by about 30 people, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union past the age of 40. There was also a tall young African man in the shul. “He comes regularly and asks me a lot of questions,” she said.
Rabbi Deusel was hired by Or Chaim’s president, Chaim Olmer, who died last year. Olmer worked with her when she was vice-president of Bamberg’s Jewish community.
As a woman rabbi, she has had no problems from her congregants. One of them recently told her, “We regard you as our rabbi.”
But Orthodox rabbis in Germany shy away from her. “They won’t look at us or greet us,” she said.
Rabbi Deusel’s personal history is nothing if not complex.
While her mother was of partial Jewish ancestry, her father was a Catholic who had no interest in religion. To the best of her knowledge, her grandfather, a shoemaker, converted to Christianity to gain admittance into an antisemitic shoemaker’s guild in Nuremberg, a centre of the Nazi movement in the 1930s and 1940s.
To this day, she cannot explain how her partially Jewish relatives managed to survive during the long night of Nazism.
Yet mixed-race families like hers were not that uncommon during the Third Reich, to the best of her knowledge. “They didn’t talk about it,” she said.
Rabbi Deusel studied medicine at the University of Erlangen and specialized in urology. Later, she took classes in pediatric urology at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem.
Having been vice-president of Bamberg’s Jewish community for 12 years, she decided to become a rabbi, following a formal conversion to Judaism.
Apart from her rabbinical studies, she took an MA degree in Jewish studies, writing her thesis on circumcision. Last year, it was published as a book.
Rabbi Deusel’s younger sister took a different path. “I don’t know if she considers herself Jewish. She’s a proud atheist, like my mother.”
Strictly speaking, she was not the first female rabbi in postwar Germany.
Alina Treiger, a Ukrainian immigrant from Poltava born in 1979, was ordained in 2010 in a ceremony attended by Germany’s president. She works primarily with Russian Jews in Oldenburg and in the adjacent town of Delmenhorst, but of late, she has been on maternity leave.
There are some 900 Jews in Bamberg – a mecca of architecturally historic buildings – and its suburbs. The majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Settled by Jewish traders about 1,000 years ago, Bamberg was not always hospitable to Jews. Pogroms broke out in 1298 and again in 1348. From the 14th to the 17th centuries, Jews were merely tolerated.
Jewish settlement in Bamberg reached its apogee in the late 1880s, when 1,270 Jews, representing four per cent of the population, lived here.
The town’s Moorish-style synagogue was burned to the ground during Kristallnacht in 1938. By that point, hundreds of Jews already had left Bamberg. In 1941, the remaining 300 Jews in Bamberg were deported to Riga, Izbica/Lublin, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
Jews returned to Bamberg after the war, resurrecting the community. But in 1965, neo-Nazi vandals desecrated 32 tombstones in the Jewish cemetery and defaced a monument connected with the Nazi destruction of Bamberg’s synagogue.
In response to these crimes, 4,000 citizens took to the streets in a protest as heavy rain fell on Bamberg.
The mayor, Theodor Mathieu, expressed his revulsion over the attacks and ordered flags in Bamberg to be flown at half-mast. In another sign of solidarity with the Jewish community, the local newspaper offered a reward for the capture of the perpetrators.
Before tens of thousands of Soviet Jews poured into Germany after 1989, Bamberg was home to about 25 Jews, mainly from eastern Europe, said Rabbi Deusel.
Rabbi Deusel, who has lived with a partner for the last 20 years, holds a part-time position at Or Chaim, working two to four weekends per month. Her colleague, Cantor Arieh Rudolph, is employed on a full-time basis.
She hopes to obtain a permanent position as a rabbi, but is not hopeful. As she put it, “There are not many rabbinical positions in Germany.”
In the meantime, she practises medicine in a private clinic, performs circumcisions as a mohel and teaches Judaism at the University of Bamberg.
It’s a hectic life, but she enjoys it immensely.