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Schuster 'no commemorator'

Marcus Lütticke / ksbNovember 30, 2014

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has a new president. Josef Schuster will succeed Dieter Graumann. In his work, the Franconian wants to focus on the positive sides of Judaism.

Central Council of Jews in Germany President Josef Schuster
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Karmann

Josef Schuster is a doctor with a passion. As well as working in his practice, the physician from the southern German city of Würzburg in Baveria, is also involved in voluntary ambulance and lifeguard services. Recently, a lifeboat was even named "Josef" in his honor. Now a new challenge awaits Schuster. On Sunday in Frankfurt, he was elected as the new president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (ZdJ).

He doesn't like it at all, however, when conversation touches the subject of the relationship between Jews and Germans. "That always makes my blood pressure rise a little," said the doctor. "Such phrasing would imply that Jews aren't Germans."

Moderate and integrate

Schuster considers one of the biggest challenges within Jewish communities in Germany to be the different trends. In some cities, for example, there is a divide between orthodox and liberals. Schuster supports diversity, but would appreciate it if these trends could coexist under one roof. Frankfurt is a positive example of this. In the city's Westend Synagogue there is a traditional place of worship as well as a liberal church with a female Rabbi on another floor.

In Würzburg Schuster is chairman of a traditional orthodox community but, as he made clear in an interview with Deutschlandradio, he does not consider himself to be an orthodox Jew. For Schuster an orthodox Jew is someone who "really constantly wears a cap [and] maybe even has side locks." He finds this in no way a negative thing, but would rather call himself traditional.

The ongoing integration of numerous immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union into Germany, which increased particularly in the 1990s, is also a concern for Schuster. "Of course, it is also a challenge if a minority wants to integrate into a majority." Overall, however, Jewish life in Germany has benefited from immigration. In his own community, numbers have risen from 200 to over 1000.

Highlighting life's happy side

Schuster is now looking to the future. "The Holocaust will never be forgotten - Jewish people carry it in their hearts. But God knows, it isn't only the memory of the Holocaust that makes Jewish life. It also has very life-affirming, fun-loving aspects," Schuster said in an interview with German public broadcaster MDR. And now he wants to emphasize this in his work.

He is therefore seeking anything but a commemorative role. "For me, it would be best if people later said: 'He definitely didn't remind!' But I'm afraid that will remain a dream," he told a Cologne-based daily. He described the fear of many Jews of anti-Semitic trends in society using a medical analogy: "Anyone who has had pneumonia once, gives each cough greater importance."

Unintended presidency

Like his predecessor, Dieter Graumann, Schuster didn't live through the era of National Socialism in Germany. He was born in 1954 in Haifa, Israel, after his parents fled the Nazis in 1938. When he was two years old his family returned to Würzburg. There he attended the same school as his father, before studying medicine. Schuster has been active in the ZdJ for the past 15 years - most recently as vice-president. He would have liked to have remained Graumann's deputy, but after Graumann surprisingly stepped down, Schuster is now in the spotlight.

Rumored to have particularly good time management, Schuster wants to remain faithful to his profession as a doctor and is approaching the balancing act of his practice in Würzburg and the Central Council in Berlin somewhat optimistically.