WebYeshiva.org’s Rabbi Zsolt Balla recently announced he will be taking up a position as the first Rabbi in the German army in nearly 100 years.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1930s Jews were banned from all areas of public life including the military. In the years following WWII, Jewish soldiers in the German army could only seek guidance from non-Jewish chaplaincy.
In December of 2019 the German government voted to reinstate rabbinical chaplaincy but the official appointments were postponed until recently due to corona.
WebYeshiva spoke with Rabbi Balla, a teacher in our Hungarian language program, to hear his thoughts on this special occasion.
Can you give a little background where you grew up and what you have been doing prior to receiving this appointment.
I grew up in Budapest, graduated from the Technical University there, and in 2002 at the age of 23 I came to Germany to study in Yeshiva. I spent two years learning in Berlin, another year in Jerusalem, and then I returned to the re-opened Hildesheimer Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin. I received Semicha in 2009, being one of the first two Orthodox rabbis to receive rabbinic training in Germany after the war.
Since 2009 I have been serving the Leipzig Jewish community, and since 2019 I’m the rabbi of the Federal State of Saxony. But even with this latest appointment, I will remain in Leipzig and continue to be the rabbi of the community and the State of Saxony.
How does it feel to be making history as the first German military rabbi since before WWII?
It is a great responsibility. I am honestly trembling, and pray that the Master of the World gives us the koach to change the paradigm for the better.
When you think of the rich Jewish history of Germany prior to the Holocaust, what comes to mind first?
I have a lot of heros from the former German rabbinate. The care for the school children and education of Rabbi Ephraim Carlebach ז״ל of Leipzig, the self-sacrifice of Rabbi Joseph Carlebach ז״ל of Hamburg, the fighting for the Jewish unity of the Würzrburger Rav, Rav Yitzchak Dov Bamberger ז״ל, Rav Hildesheimer ז״ל and Rav Hirsch ז״ל for opening new horizons but without a compromise to the tradition, the Sridei Eish, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg ז״ל, for keeping the flame burning, Rav Shimon Shwab ז״ל for not allowing the theological heritage of Ashkenazi Jewry perish, and I could continue.
But some of the biggest heroes are those Rabbanim שליט״א, who are working throughout the Jewish communities right now to bring yiddishkeit to the many Jews, who due to historical reasons have not been exposed to traditional Torah Judaism.
Aside from being available to army personnel, what do you hope most to teach the Jews you will serve?
First I would like to open my eyes and ears, and listen to their needs. We have to reach out to those soldiers who until now did not have the chance to turn to an army rabbi. My personal goal is to serve them, and for that I have to understand their needs first.
What do you hope to teach the non-Jews interested in learning from you or whom you encounter?
Whenever I teach a non-Jewish audience, I wish to break stereotypes. I would like to show them how relevant religion is today in general, and Judaism in particular; how classic, traditional Jewish ethical values can contribute to a better society.