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The Jews Are Back

Yocheved Lavon

Homegrown on German soil, Rabbi Yitzchak Mendel Wagner was moved to study Torah by a call from deep in his neshamah. But he never dreamed that one day he would serve as rav in his hometown of Krefeld. Two years ago, he and his congregation marked a turning point when they lit a Chanukah menorah on the site of the old shul that was burned down on Kristallnacht.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

jew with sefer torahYitzchak Mendel Wagner is the first rabbi in Krefeld since the Holocaust. The community’s roots go back to Napoleon’s time, he says, when the kehillah was founded under the leadership of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Karlburg. For reasons of his own, Napoleon wanted to unite all the Jews under his rule, and a plan to restore the Sanhedrin was part of his agenda. Rabbi Karlburg was one of those selected for the honor of serving, but it was an honor he preferred to do without. He was suffering from a problem with his eye, and using that as a pretext, he begged to be excused.

After Rabbi Karlburg, the next few rabbis were “doktor rabbiners” who took a more modern and integrative approach. Eventually the kehillah shifted over to Reform. So in a sense, Rabbi Wagner is the first shtarker rav in Krefeld since Napoleon’s time.

Rabbi Wagner is a tall man with a clear-eyed look and an open, youthful expression. His direct manner and disarming frankness are modified by a veneer of typically German reserve. With barely detectable irony, he tells the story of how he became the rav of Krefeld, beginning with the day he “found a way to learn Torah and get the German government to pay for it.”

Wagner was born in Krefeld, and never dreamed of becoming a rabbi there until it happened. In his teenage years he became interested in Judaism and a yearning for Torah began to stir in his soul. He longed to study in Eretz Yisrael, but needed a learning program and financial backing. Opportunity came at age 18 when the German government’s social services launched a program sponsoring young volunteers who would work with disabled people in Israel through an umbrella organization called Shekel (Community Services for the Disabled). Wagner was accepted into the program and traveled to Jerusalem. While he found a certain satisfaction in working work with physically and mentally disadvantaged Israelis, he felt a stronger pull toward people who could teach him Torah.

With the help of frum coworkers, he implemented a plan to carve out a learning opportunity: he got himself assigned to a group of disabled religious Jews who needed help getting to shiurim. As long as he was there with them, there was nothing to stop him from learning with them as well. In time, through the advice and influence of Rabbi Yehuda Teichtel, the Chabad rav of Berlin, the young Yitzchak Mendel Wagner began to learn in Chabad’s Mayanot Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, where he was exposed to chassidic teachings, while continuing to spend half the day learning with his disabled friends. His intense desire to progress in learning pushed him; like a sponge, he absorbed more and more. The taste of Torah was sweet, and he grew thirstier as he realized how much more there was to learn.

“At Mayanot, besides general learning in Gemara and halachah, I received training in how to survive in a spiritual desert, or better, how to transform a desert. My main mashpia there was Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov.”

Mayanot was also where he sharpened his skills in English through lively sparring with English-speaking learning partners. He speaks the language well, with a mild accent and an occasional European turn of phrase.

Back in Germany, Wagner started his first outreach activities in Krefeld, his hometown. One of his early achievements was the establishment of a chevra kadisha.

In search of his next opportunity to grow in learning, Wagner went to the smichah course offered by Pirchei Shoshanim. Becoming a pulpit rabbi wasn’t on his agenda. “I only went for the sake of the learning,” he says. “But when I went for the smichah test there were two other German Jews there, and after we all passed the test, a Jewish paper in Germany printed a big article about the new, native-born rabbis.” Rabbi Wagner received smichah in 2005 from Yeshivas Pirchei Shoshanim and from Chabad. That same year he married his basherte, who was born in Dnjepropetrovsk, Ukraine.

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