Chief Rabbi told that a rabbi was not a job for Jewish boy

Doreen Wachmann meets a slightly unorthodox Orthodox chief rabbi

CHIEF Rabbi Dr Chaim Paul Eisenberg is a chief rabbi with a difference. In Manchester last weekend for the induction of his son, Rabbi Dovid Eisenberg, as rabbi of Prestwich Hebrew Congregation in Manchester, he posed for the official photographs in an open-necked shirt.

He is also very proud of his sense of humour and concert performances, assets one does not always associate with chief rabbis.

Rabbi Eisenberg succeeded his Hungarian-born father Rabbi Akiva Eisenberg as Austrian Chief Rabbi. But it was not a foregone conclusion.

He told me: "My father told me not to become a rabbi. He said that it was not a good job for a Jewish boy. I studied maths at Vienna University. But I used to go to Bnei Akiva and give shiurim.

"One day I told my father that I had changed my mind. I went to Jerusalem to yeshivot in Israel.

"When I returned I had offers of rabbinic positions from Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin as I spoke fluent German, which was my mother tongue. But I became assistant rabbi to my father, even though the other communities were very keen on me.

"I was a little scared to start straight away to be a rabbi of a whole town. I also felt a certain responsibility to be with my father who was getting older and needing help. It was also nice that the community should have two rabbis.

"My father, who was 42 years older than me, as he only married after the Shoah, died five years later. The question was whether the community should look for another rabbi or try with me."

He laughed: "After 25 years they're still trying!"

So has he modelled his ministry on that of his late father?

He replied: "Yes and No. We both had a good sense of humour and so has my son Dovid. But my father was from the old style. He wore canonicals. I didn't. That didn't mean that he was a stiff person. There was a slight difference of style.

"We love to sing in our family. I made half a career out of it. I'm a shtickel chazan and I make chazanut and klesmer concerts. I like Carlebach music. My father liked to sing at home, but he would never go on stage. "

Then he added: "We are definitely Orthodox, but definitely moderate. You can interpret halacha to include or exclude. We include. Even my son who went for many years to strict yeshivot is the same.

"Our family wants excellence, both in Torah and secular knowledge."

Rabbi Eisenberg explained that most of Austria's 9,000 Jews were united within one community.

He said: "At least half are not practising Orthodox, but they are not Reform. Anyone with a Jewish mother can be a member of our community.

"My main shul, the Stadttempel, has a lot of people who come only once or twice a year. But when they marry it is Orthodox. The charedim think it is not Orthodox enough.

"The charedim are also members of my community, but they have their own shuls and schools. We have a big variety of shuls, Bukharian, Chabad, Mizrahi, Aguda and Chassidic."

The Stadttempel was the only Viennese synagogue to survive the Holocaust. This was because when it was built in 1826 Emperor Joseph II had forbidden it to have a facade facing a public street.

It was therefore built into a row of houses, so the Nazis were unable to destroy it without affecting the whole block.

The Chief Rabbi said: "They did a lot of damage inside, but they didn't burn it or put in explosives."

In the 1930s there were 200,000 Jews in Vienna. After the war only 2,000 returned. It is believed that about 50,000 survived, but did not return to Austria.

Rabbi Eisenberg said: "Many didn't want to return because they felt very unwelcome. After the Shoah the Austrians were afraid, not because they were Nazis, but they were afraid of tens of thousands of Jews coming and wanting back their property.

"Austria took much longer with reparations than Germany. The situation passed over to the 1990s."

Ironically it was a coalition government, including Jorg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party, which granted the reparations.

Rabbi Eisenberg said: "As long as you are in opposition you can be nasty. Haider agreed to reparations because he did not want to have a bad name."

The Austrian Jewish community of which Rabbi Eisenberg is the spiritual leader, but which is led by a lay body, succeeded in gaining not only reparations for Holocaust survivors and their families, but also the building of a Jewish school and old age home from reparation funds.

The Austrian Jewish community was also recently instrumental in persuading Austrian president Heinz Fische to cancel an award for 10 years service as an MP to Freedom Party member Heinz-Christian Strache, who made antisemitic remarks on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Although many Austrians had not welcomed Jews returning to their homeland after the Holocaust, it has proved a safe haven for Jewish refugees coming from Hungary, Czechoslovkia, Poland and later from the Soviet Union.

Rabbi Eisenberg said: "Austrians were pretty nice to allow Soviet Jews to come in. They knew they weren't going to stay, but were en route to Israel. Some left Israel to go back home, but the Soviet Union had denied them citizenship. Some got stuck in Vienna. Today they are a third of our community."

When Rabbi Eisenberg was growing up in Vienna, there were fewer Jewish institutions than there are today.

He said: "I went to a non-Jewish school. There were no Jewish schools then. I went to a school where the teachers and parents lived through the Holocaust. They didn't speak about it to their children.

"Also the Jewish parents didn't speak. Today the kids know more. Today the official school curriculum includes visits to synagogues and Mauthausen, the Austrian concentration camp.

"At the moment our relations with the government are extremely good. Austria is not one big group of antisemites, although there are instances of antisemitism. Nor is it true that all Austrians love the Jews. But I can walk with my yarmulke in the street."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph