May 22, 2024

A Conversation with Irene Runge about Jewish Life in Berlin

Stefan Liebich

On May 20th, our director, Stefan Liebich, hosted a conversation with Dr. Irene Runge under the title “Rethinking Jewish Life in Berlin“.

Irene Runge’s life and activism show the evolving dynamics of the Jewish community in Germany, particularly through the lens of her unique experiences and contributions. Born in the United States to Jewish German socialist parents, Irene’s upbringing was not marked by religious observance but rather a cultural identity. Her family’s move to East Berlin when she was seven years old brought her into contact with a form of cultural non-Zionist Judaism, and in college she joined Jewish groups for the first time.

In the 1980s, Irene became an active member of the Jewish community in East Berlin, contributing to the founding of the Jüdischer Kulturverein Berlin. This organization played a crucial role before and after German reunification, advocating for and supporting Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union. The group actively lobbied the GDR government to allow Jews, who felt oppressed in the USSR, to immigrate. This effort led to a significant influx of Jews from former Soviet countries, fundamentally altering the character of the local Jewish community.

However, this migration faced opposition. Both West Germany’s Jewish community and Israel, driven both by xenophobic sentiments and Israel’s vision of itself as the primary haven for Jews, tried to halt this movement. Despite these challenges, Irene’s group continued to provide essential support to new immigrants, extending their assistance to those arriving from Muslim and Arab-majority countries.

Irene highlighted Germany’s failure to acknowledge the diversity within the Jewish community. She criticizes the tendency to homogenize Jewish identities, which often overlooks secular Jews who do not participate in religious services. This limited representation restricts the broader understanding and visibility of the Jewish community in Germany.

Since the events of October 7, 2023, there has been a notable shift in Germany. The country has seen a rise in censorship and societal confrontations, with public opinion growing weary of the topic. 

Irene Runge’s story underscores the complexities and evolving nature of Jewish identity and community in Germany. Her activism highlights the importance of recognizing and embracing the diversity within the Jewish community, advocating for broader representation, and fostering open, inclusive discussions.

Dr. Irene Runge in conversation with Stefan Liebich on May 20, 2024 at RLS NYC office.