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Munich Liberal Congregation Says Libeskind Will Design New Synagogue 
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, December 1, 2008

The German news service Deutsche Welle has written that Munich's Liberal congregation, Beth Shalom, has engaged Berlin-Museum designer Daniel Libeskind to design a new synagogue. The Liberal congregation, affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, is not included within the formal structure of Munich's government-recognized Jewish Religious Community (Israelitischen Kultusgemeinde München und Oberbayern). Prior to the Second World War and the Holocaust, Munich has a large Liberal community housed in the large 1887 Romanesque/Gothic-style synagogue in the Herzog-Max-Strasse, demolished beginning on June 9, 1938, several months before Kristallnacht, when the city's Orthodox synagogue, Ohel Jakob, was also destroyed.

Beth Shalom, which claims to have 250 members does not have funding for the new building, which in this uncertain economy will be more difficult than even to support. Still, there is widespread interest in Liberal Judaism in Germany, and dissatisfaction with the current system that give property resources and government assistance only to Orthodox groups – this despite the fact that the majority of Jews in Germany today, whether descendants of Holocaust survivors or more recent arrivals from the FSU, do not follow Orthodox observance, and many are hardly practicing Jews at all.

Just a few years ago Munich dedicated a monumental educational, religious and ceremonial center designed by acclaimed German architects Wandel Hoefer Lorch and erected at Sankt-Jakobs-Platz. The new synagogue, named Ohel Jakob after its destroyed predecessor, is part of a complex that includes the (state-run) Jewish Museum and Jewish community center. Even while the synagogue was being constructed, however, there were questions about the real need for the building. After all, most of Munich Orthodox Jews already had their synagogues in their residential neighborhoods, too far from the new synagogue to walk; while many of Munich's younger and newly-arrived Jews, especially women, resented the arrangement of the new space which separate men and women, and they vowed not to attend. The Orthodox congregation had been using the small pre-war Reichenbachstrasse Synagogue, an elegant modern building in the rear of the Community headquarters (suggestions at the time of the opening of the new complex that the liberal community be allowed use of this historic and already existing building were rejected).

Now the announcement of the Libeskind synagogue is a clear challenge – on architectural as well as religious grounds – to the established Jewish community structure. To my knowledge, only in Berlin has an accommodation between Orthodox and Liberals been made. On the one hand this seems shocking considering the Jewish pluralism of Germany before the Holocaust (after all the Munich's Liberal Synagogue was recognized as the "main Synagogue." Liberal Judaism was born and developed in Germany in the 19th century. But the rivalries make sense when one remembers the long history of Jewish religious-cultural wars that go back to Hellenistic times, and were part of a very Jewish 19th-century version Sturm und Drang across Europe.

At least in Germany for the most part many of the "so-called" Orthodox and "so-called" Liberal Jews have few real lifestyle differences between them, and they regularly associate outside the synagogue. After all, their common experience as Jews in Germany should outweigh any differences.

It will, of course, be interesting to see what Libeskind comes up with for a synagogue. He has never designed one before, and his signature elements of spatial disorientation and attenuation, irregular angles and spaces and a willingness to upset convention rather than refine it, certainly go against what most congregations are looking for in a worship, community and education space. However, if Libeskind can let go his more recent design bombast and recapture the emotional intensity and intimacy of his Felix Nussbaum Musuem in Osnabruck, he may succeed. But modesty in Libeskind may not be what the congregation is after - certainly not if by 2018 Germany Liberal Jews are flexing their membership muscles.

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