Rabbiner in front of a Torah arc

Rabbin Akiva Weingarten devan le aron ha kodech

«I cut a shtreimel in half and sewed two shirts together»

Five Questions for
Akiva Weingarten

Rab­bi Aki­va Wein­gar­ten descri­bes hims­elf by the unli­kely term «libe­ral-chas­si­dic.» He left the ultra-ortho­dox Sat­mar com­mu­ni­ty in 2014 and in 2019 beca­me the rab­bi of both Mig­wan in Basel and of the Jewish com­mu­ni­ty in Dres­den. Days befo­re the pan­de­mic began, he foun­ded the Besht Yes­hi­va in Dres­den, which sup­ports ex-chare­dis. This year, he published his bio­gra­phy, Ultra-Ortho­dox. Nao­mi Lubrich spo­ke with him about his path, his plans, and his famous portrait.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Aki­va, your book «Ultra-Ortho­dox» came out this year. Why did you wri­te it?

Aki­va Wein­gar­ten: I am an ex-chare­di, a so-cal­led OTD, the acro­nym for peo­p­le who are «off the derech» (Eng­lish: Off the path). With this topic in the eye of the media, I gave seve­ral inter­views, among others to Spie­gel, Deut­sche Wel­le, and Arte. A publisher read the artic­les and sug­gested I wri­te a bio­gra­phy. So I did. The past two years have been inten­si­ve. Bes­i­des wri­ting the book and ser­ving two com­mu­ni­ties, I foun­ded a yes­hi­va to help other OTDs find ent­ry into majo­ri­ty society.

NL: That is a gre­at respon­si­bi­li­ty! What are their imme­dia­te needs?

AW: Peo­p­le who lea­ve the chare­di com­mu­ni­ty need schoo­ling in sci­en­ces and lan­guages, a high school diplo­ma, and a sup­port­i­ve infra­struc­tu­re. The­re are many who want to lea­ve, and it is hard to help them all. We curr­ent­ly have a wai­ting list of 106 peo­p­le who need sup­port. We don’t even reach out in any acti­ve way. We don’t adver­ti­se. Peo­p­le come to us via word of mouth. They used to be most­ly young, unmar­ried men, many of whom were gay. Now the majo­ri­ty are women.

NL: Can the Jewish com­mu­ni­ties help?

AW: To some ext­ent they do, but pro­jects such as the­se need fun­ding, and in Ger­ma­ny, social poli­tics are usual­ly govern­men­tal. It’s hard to break into the cha­ri­ta­ble struc­tures with a new endeavor.

NL: You work bet­ween Ger­ma­ny and Switz­er­land. How are the com­mu­ni­ties different?

AW: The Swiss com­mu­ni­ties are old and well-estab­lished; they have shared values and respon­si­bi­li­ties trans­mit­ted over gene­ra­ti­ons. The Ger­man com­mu­ni­ties are new, they are often run by recent arri­vals, some of whom have litt­le to no first-hand Jewish heri­ta­ge. It is remar­kab­le how striking natio­nal dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween the com­mu­ni­ties can be: Take inter­mar­ria­ge, one of the most pres­sing ques­ti­ons today. It is the reason that many com­mu­ni­ties in Euro­pe are shrin­king. But in the United Sta­tes, the com­mu­ni­ties that have a wel­co­ming atti­tu­de to inter­mar­ria­ge are gro­wing. They pay a pri­ce though, in form of con­ces­si­ons to the halacha, the reli­gious law.

NL: Your por­trait by Fré­dé­ric Bren­ner has beco­me quite a thing in the muse­um sce­ne. How did you get the idea for a pic­tu­re with half a beard and half a shtreimel? 

AW: [laughs] Actual­ly, I was inspi­red by a pho­to I saw online of a non-Jewish man who had shaved half of his hair and beard. Asked why, he ans­we­red: «Becau­se I can.» That’s a gre­at atti­tu­de. And it see­med per­fect for adapt­a­ti­on by Fré­dé­ric and me. So I cut a used sht­rei­mel in half and sewed two shirts tog­e­ther. It was fun.

NL: I can ima­gi­ne! Aki­va, Thank you very much for your visit.

verfasst am 29.09.2022