On May 25,1955, sixteen men, among them some of the foremost German-Jewish intellectuals who had survived the Holocaust, came together in Jerusalem. Using German as their common language, they addressed the task of setting forth a program for a newly envisaged Leo Baeck Institute. Among those present was the philosopher Martin Buber, who was, along with Gershom Scholem, perhaps the best known among them. Buber chose to present his own personal vision to the group. "For me," he began, "it is humanly important that what remains of German Jewry gather itself around a spiritual task that will lend it vitality. German Jewry was one of the most remarkable phenomena in Jewish history." Collectively, it was at least as notable as the Jewish communities of ancient Alexandria and medieval Cordova. According to Buber, now that German Jewry had reached the end of its historical journey, the survivors possessed an obligation to determine how the German-Jewish "symbiosis" came into being, how it functioned, and what remained of it after crisis and catastrophe.
When many years earlier, in 1818, Leopold Zunz, the first important practitioner of the scholarly study of Judaism, which became known internationally as Wissenschaft des Judentums, set forth his purpose, he wrote that in their striving towards mastery of German language and culture, the German Jews were carrying post-biblical Hebrew literature to its grave. Scholarly study had therefore appeared to demand an accounting from that which had reached the end of its course. Similarly, five generations later, the founders of the Leo Baeck Institute sought an accounting, this time for that very German-Jewish subculture which was just beginning to sprout in Zunz's youth. But they were not content with merely drawing up a balance sheet. They sought to transmit the inheritance to future generations. German Jewry, according to Buber, could not continue as a living entity, but a spiritual continuity, formulated as a task, was possible. That task was to present a sober and persuasive account of German Jewry as it had been in fact, without apologetics, the negative side as well as the positive. The results of such research would reach future generations that had not been a part of the German-Jewish experience themselves.
The founders chose to concentrate their historical efforts on a period of about a hundred and fifty years from the Jewish enlightenment and the beginnings of Jewish emancipation down to the year 1933. This period was marked by the creation and growth of the German-Jewish modernity that had shaped them as Germans and as Jews. The earlier medieval period was both distant and different, at a remove from their own cultural and religious identity. The more recent years, which Buber designated a time of crisis and catastrophe, aroused painful memories. The history of Nazi persecution could be studied by others. The only early interest in those final years lay in the maintenance of Jewish life in the severest of circumstances. Perhaps also some of the founders continued to believe that Nazism had been atypical, an unanticipated turn to barbarism.
Still, they had chosen to name the institute after Rabbi Leo Baeck, not so much because Baeck was an important religious thinker and scholar, but because he had been the chosen representative of German Jewry during precisely those dark years. Perhaps it was because Baeck had embodied the best of the German-Jewish tradition and brought it to bear on the work he performed in an excruciatingly difficult position that he had become an iconic figure across the widest spectrum. He had been a Liberal with high regard for tradition, a non-Zionist who supported the work of building Jewish settlements in the land of Israel, a symbol of unity within German Jewry.
During succeeding years, the Leo Baeck Institute that these men created produced the extraordinary work that is chronicled on the pages of this volume. In the course of half a century its branches in Jerusalem, London, and New York, as well as its scholarly working group and its support group in Germany, have succeeded in presenting a more detailed and in-depth image of German Jewry than the German Jews themselves had been able to achieve before the Holocaust. Not that German Jewry had been unaware of its own history. In 1870 Heinrich Graetz had devoted more than two-thirds of the last volume of his magisterial History of the Jews to the Jews of Germany, and not long afterwards the first periodical devoted specifically to German-Jewish history, the Zeitschrift für die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland, began to appear. Germania Judaica, a town-by-town history of the German Jews, had commenced publication in 1917. But it was not until the Nazi era that German Jewry looked back intensively and critically upon its own past. In 1934 Rabbi Joachim Prinz published the immensely popular volume Wir Juden, which severely called into question the German-Jewish identity shaped in the nineteenth century, and a year later Ismar Elbogen produced the first fullscale scholarly history of German Jewry.
The newly founded Baeck Institute sought to attach itself to the research whose beginnings had been made in Germany. But in 1955 there were few historians who worked in the area of Jewish history and almost none of academic standing whose principal field was the history of the German Jews. The only outstanding exceptions were Selma Stern-Täubler and Hans Liebeschütz. Thus the early writings published by the Leo Baeck Institute were primarily the work of authors who devoted their leisure time to investigating one or another chapter of German-Jewish history that they found of special interest or in which they had themselves played a role. Only gradually did the Leo Baeck Institute emerge from the dominance of this older generation and pass into the hands of younger, historically trained scholars, both Jewish and gentile.
It was decided in 1955 that the Leo Baeck Institute would be an international scholarly institution with "working centers" in those countries to which the German-Jewish diaspora had principally been scattered. All three of the centers, apart from their scholarly work, instituted programs of public lectures, which drew audiences composed largely of German-Jewish emigrants eager to commemorate their heritage. Through the years, these "remnants" of German Jewry remained active among the private supporters of the institute as well as among the consumers of its programs and publications. However, increasingly, the branches of the institute reoriented themselves toward a different community, the emerging and rapidly increasing body of academic scholars in the field. It was principally for them that the holdings of the Leo Baeck archives in New York were maintained, modernized and expanded, and that a branch of the archives was established within the Jewish Museum in Berlin. It was with the intent of helping to train younger scholars that the LBI's scholarly working group in Germany agreed to plan colloquia for graduate students working in the field. Conferences, whether held in Israel, Europe or the United States, were often organized in academic locales and intended especially for seasoned and younger scholars, who sometimes came from adjacent fields. Most of the book-length publications, which in German, English and Hebrew have in fifty years reached well over a hundred, have been intended especially for scholars, though some have found entry to a broader readership. The Year Book, which has appeared annually without fail since the first volume in 1956, has likewise increasingly addressed itself to the international community of scholars. The German-language Bulletin, which appeared from 1957 to 1990, was somewhat more commemorative in nature, but also mainly contained scholarly articles. A more popular approach has been apparent over recent years in the Jüdischer Almanach, which began to appear in 1996, and in the changing exhibits presented within the larger public space of the New York LBI's domicile inside the Center for Jewish History, where it has been brought into closer contact with organizations devoted to studying American, East European, and Sephardic Jewish history.
The shift from commemoration to scholarly analysis has also manifested itself in an expansion of the institute's purview. Once the goal of preserving and enhancing existing memory began to fade along with the generation of the founders, the study of pre-Enlightenment and Emancipation Jewry no longer seemed irrelevant. On the contrary, the early modern and even the medieval period were now recognized to be not only intrinsically of great interest, but also important for understanding the roots of German-Jewish modernity. Likewise, the Nazi period came into broader view. It too, after all, was a part of the story. But what of the survivors who had remained in Germany or returned there? And what of the new German Jews who had no roots whatever in pre-war Germany? Was theirs a new and entirely different history, beyond the purview of an institute dedicated to maintaining the memory of a very different historical experience, perhaps even a different mentality? Only most recently has the institute begun to interest itself in this new population, which is still in the initial process of emerging and merging together as a German-Jewish community and culture.
With the approach of its jubilee, the Leo Baeck Institute began to look toward a summing up of its work. It commissioned the four-volume German-Jewish History in Modern Times, intended to draw together in synthetic form the research of nearly half a century, most of which had appeared under various auspices of the LBI, into a readable historical account of German Jewry beginning with its medieval origins, but concentrating on the years of its modernity. This work by multiple authors and appearing in three languages represented the state of the field in the early 1990s, the voices of its contributors blended into a coherent narrative. The present volume, this history of the LBI itself, is likewise a drawing together, a venture in self-understanding by an institution whose purpose gradually shifted from the retrospective self- understanding of German Jewry to the more contextualized and distanced understanding that is the task of scholars.
However, neither the four-volume history, with its recent additional volume on the history of German-Jewish daily life, nor this history of the LBI, represent a final accounting in the sense of Zunz and of Buber. It is characteristic of the discipline of historiography that it offers no final answers. New archival sources, some of them brought into public view in inventory volumes published in recent years by the institute, contain as yet unevaluated information. Not only do certain specific issues remain in dispute, but within the changing panoramic view of German-Jewish history, figures that dominated the foreground in earlier accounts become less prominent in the view of later scholars as other personalities - and other issues - are recognized to be of greater short-term or long-term consequence. Moreover, since the writing of history is an art no less than a product of research, the goal of a more evocative as well as a more fully persuasive account remains always before us.
Indeed, there is much still to be done. Among the literally hundreds of scholars now active in the field of Jewish history, many of them at the start of their careers, each will have some projects in mind that require new or further research and writing. Let me mention only a few that are of personal interest. Individuals are both creators of history and its product. German-Jewish history produced a variety of extraordinary personages who are deserving of more extensive biographical treatment than they have received. Even more desirable would be comparative biographies that bring into the foreground differences resulting from environment and personality. Much remains to be done in the area of religion among German Jews, once again preferably in comparison with belief and practice among Christians. Beyond religion, attention is just beginning to be given to German-Jewish mores: such subjects as changing attitudes to sexuality, social behavior and social taboos.
How did these changes manifest themselves, one would like to know, in the very different contexts of Wilhelminian, Weimar, and Nazi Germany? More work also needs to be done on generational continuity and rebellion in varying historical circumstances. Studies comparing the modernization of Jews in Germany with that of Jews in other lands have only recently begun to appear and leave much yet to be accomplished. Finally, the question of the paradigmatic character of German-Jewish modernization for Jews in other lands has become a much disputed issue. The influences, parallels, variations and clear-cut differences need to be understood more clearly.
Historiography is a dialectical process of analysis and synthesis, of dissection and reshaping. The contributions contained in this volume, taken together, represent a first collective attempt to shape a detailed image of an institution that has reached a significant anniversary, but not an end-point, in its career. It does not contain personal recollections by its Jewish and gentile authors. They were not themselves part of the German-Jewish experience nor were they shapers of the institute of which they write. Their assessments are therefore free of the limited perspectives and perhaps prejudices that almost necessarily characterize the insider. But that is not to say that they lack sympathy for their subjects. Their goal is a balanced and maximally objective account.
Fifty years ago the founders of the Leo Baeck Institute looked back upon their own history as German Jews with both dismay and pride. The establishment of the institute was a necessity of their souls. Over the course of half a century their creation has progressed from personal recollection and reflection, to scholarly assessment, to the creation of a broad historical canvas that remains far from complete. The Book of Leviticus declares that every fiftieth year is to be a jubilee, a time of release from previous obligations opening the way for the acceptance of new ones. It serves as a sacred milestone between the past and future. The Leo Baeck Institute, too, stands at a significant milestone in its own history. The present volume elaborates upon the obligations it has undertaken and sought to fulfill during the last fifty years. For the Leo Baeck Institute this book is a work of collective self-reflection that points towards future possibilities.
Michael A. Meyer
International President, Leo Baeck Institute