For the first time since World War I, the German military is set to appoint a Chief Rabbi. The move, an initiative of German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, is aimed at both serving the hundreds of Jews in the German military’s ranks as well as fighting anti-Semitism. The appointment of a Jewish German to a significant role will also be highly symbolic given the German military’s participation in the genocide of the Jewish people in the Holocaust.
Rabbi Zsolt Balla has been selected to fill the position. He will continue his current roles as Chief Rabbi of Saxony and its capital, Leipzig, while serving as the Chief Military Rabbi.
Around 300 German Jews currently serve in the country’s military. Balla will head the military rabbinate that will be established in Berlin and will be responsible for the work of 10 religious figures in the military. Alongside the provision of religious services to Jewish soldiers, the military rabbinate will take part in the education of all German soldiers to prevent anti-Semitism.
Rabbi Balla will officially enter the role at a ceremony at a Leipzig synagogue to be held in a few weeks. Among those set to attend are Kramp-Karrenbauer, Saxon Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer, Central Council of Jews in Germany Josef Schuster, as well as representatives of the Conference of European Rabbis, of which Balla is a member.
Conference of European Rabbis and Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt welcomed the appointment.
“This is a significant step in bolstering ties between the German people and the Jewish community that has resided in Germany for hundreds of years. The establishment of a military rabbinate in the German military sends a clear message of tolerance and pluralism, which will bring us one step closer toward maintaining Jews’ freedom of religion in Germany and fighting against any anti-Semitic phenomenon that arises later on,” he said.
While the decision to appoint a Chief Rabbi was made last year, its implementation was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.