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Jews making Germany home again

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MUNICH, Germany — No one needs to explain the horrors of Kristallnacht to Lauren Rid.

A Woodmere, N.Y., native, Rid lives near the Munich meeting hall where a speech by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels sparked "the night of broken glass" beginning on Nov. 9, 1938, during which Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses were destroyed in a wave of violence that foreshadowed the Holocaust. Some 100 Jews were murdered that night, and, subsequently, 30,000 more were sent to concentration camps.

Now, in a nation once synonymous with anti-Jewish terror, Rid is among a growing number of American Jews who are leading a resurgence of Jewish life.

"When I pass by that spot, and I pass by it quite often, you know what happened here," said Rid, 45, who moved to Munich with her husband in 1992, and who is raising their three school-aged children here. "But the reality today is a very different reality."

In 1995, Rid helped found Temple Beth Shalom, a reform synagogue made up in large measure by American expatriates who wanted their children to have a Jewish religious and cultural life while living in predominantly Catholic Munich.

The synagogue grew out of a reform Jewish community whose rabbi was the chaplain at a nearby U.S. military base. When the rabbi moved on, members formed their own synagogue rather than join a larger synagogue in Munich that catered to the more orthodox practices of its Russian immigrant majority.

Today, Beth Shalom has about 300 members. In all, some 260,000 Jews live in Germany, according to German government figures. Germany's Jewish population has more than tripled since 1990 — Germany is now home to Europe's third-largest Jewish population, behind France and England.

The country's Jewish population today is less than half of the 600,000 Jews who were living in Germany when Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933. In all, 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust; 12,000 remained alive in Germany by the end of the war in 1945.

Since war's end, just three rabbis have been ordained in Germany. One of them is Tom Kucera, a Czech-born rabbinical student who today is the rabbi at Beth Shalom.

"I want to contribute to the continuation of Jewish civilization," said Kucera. "And I specifically use the word 'civilization,' because Judaism is not only a religion, it's much more. We have a lot of Jews who are nonreligious who are still good Jews.

"I think it is much more welcoming here than in other countries of Europe because of the government's sensitivity to history," he said.

Last weekend, Germany marked the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht with solemn ceremonies nationwide, as well as celebrations of the resurgence of Jewish life. In the southwestern German city of Lorrach, a new synagogue opened on land donated by the city, not far from where the original synagogue was destroyed 70 years ago.

Chancellor Angela Merkel told Jewish leaders gathered Sunday at the Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin, Germany's largest temple, that the Holocaust was "the darkest chapter of German history."

"We must ensure that anti-Semitism, racism and anti-foreigner feeling can never again take root," she said, according to a German embassy Web site.

But the re-emergence of a tiny extremist fringe in Germany still leaves some Jews here uneasy.

A police cruiser is stationed in front of the residential building where Beth Shalom's members pray in a basement sanctuary. "We don't discourage it," Rid said. "We're happy they see a responsibility to protect Jewish life."

But she says she feels very much a part of Germany, a nation that incubated many of the cultural traditions that shaped her identity as a Jewish woman on Long Island.

"I feel very comfortable being Jewish here," said Rid, who left Woodmere at 19 to study philosophy at Union College in upstate Schenectady. "Maybe that's because I'm a New Yorker and say people have to take me for who I am."