Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz, the Institute for German Jewish Heritage, is the leading institute dedicated to the research, preservation and transmission of the unique religious values, customs, and folklore of German Jewry, as they existed prior to the Holocaust.
The history of German (Ashkenazi) Jewry dates back to the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. First in Roman Italy, later on in the Rhine Valley, these Jews developed their own remarkable tradition. That tradition is the cumulative product of two millennia of brilliant scholars and dedicated community leaders. It remains today one of the priceless spiritual legacies of our people.
Rabbi Isaac of Vienna the 'Ohr Zarua' exclaimed nearly eight hundred years ago, "Do you not know what towering geniuses and men of holiness are the Rabbis of Mainz, Worms, and Speier? From them has the Torah gone forth to all of Israel!" After Rabbenu Asher (the 'Rosh') was forced to flee Germany for Spain, he wrote, "I keep to our tradition as we received it from our ancestors of blessed memory, the Sages of Ashkenaz. Their Torah was a legacy from their fathers from the time of the Temple's destruction."
In later times, we find leading Western and Eastern European Sages looking to the Masores Ashkenaz, as maintained by German Jewry, as the authentic Ashkenazi tradition. The 'Chavas Ya'ir', Rabbi Ya'ir Chaim Bacharach of Worms (1638-1702) described the Minhagim of Ashkenaz as free of the distortions and corruptions which inadvertently crept into other traditions. The 'Korban Nasanel', Rabbi Nasanel Weil of Karlsruhe (1687-1769), expressed the view that the customs of Germany were built on foundations of solid gold far superior to the customs of Eastern Europe. In one of his responsa, he writes, "All the customs of Germany still apply in full force, for the great rabbis of Ashkenaz, who laid down the Torah for Israel, established all our accepted customs, which we, as the descendants of the Ashkenazim, should follow."
Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschuetz (1690-1767), though born and raised in Eastern Europe, concurred: "The Torah was given over to the Sages of Ashkenaz. What could we know of which they were not aware?" The 'Chasam Sofer', Rabbi Moses Schreiber of Pressburg (1762-1839) a native of Frankfurt and subsequently the leader of Hungarian Jewry, wrote, "all the customs of Germany were established by our teachers, the disciples of Rashi..."
The Jewish communities of Germany were the source of spiritual life for generation after generation of European Jewry. The communities of Germany flourished for centuries, enriching the Jewish world, nourishing the precious heritage of Sinai, and willingly giving their lives to sanctify Hashem's Name.
The Setting Sun
From the time of the First Crusade, the Jews of Germany were continuously persecuted, humiliated, and murdered by their Gentile neighbors. As a consequence, there was a constant emigration of Jews from Germany to Eastern Europe. These refugees constituted a large percentage of Eastern European Jewry. It was they who provided Eastern European Jewry with its distinctive language Juedisch-Deutsch (Yiddish) and ethnic appellation - Ashkenazim. Unfortunately, the traditions of Germany did not always fully survive the move to Eastern Europe.
The constant emigration from Germany throughout the centuries thinned the ranks of the remaining communities. By the 1930s there were only five hundred thousand Jews living in Germany, compared to three and a half million living in Poland alone.
Yet, their relatively small numbers did not prevent the German Jews in the 17th and 18th centuries from nurturing a flourishing Torah life and maintaining Yeshivos in many communities. The famous Yeshivos of Germany attracted young scholars from all over Europe, and did so until the tides of the Enlightenment swept all away.
The influence of the Enlightenment was first felt by the Jews of Western Europe. With political emancipation and the opening of the ghettos, the Jews of Western Europe were exposed for the first time to a non-Jewish culture not without its own allure. Assimilation was the result.
With the mushrooming of Western European culture, Germany and France became the world centers of the Enlightenment. Philosophers, composers, poets, and scientists abounded, and with them grew the universities. Freed from the ghettos, granted civil rights at last, and suddenly confronted with a dazzling Gentile world, the Jews of the west reeled in shock. Many succumbed, whether all at once or gradually, and took the course of assimilation.
In Eastern Europe the dangers of Gentile culture were still scarcely noticeable. The ambient Gentile culture was simply too primitive as to be worth assimilating into. It was only much later that the Enlightenment and the Socialist movements penetrated there.
Though traditional German Jewry did consolidate and strengthen itself against assimilation, it was now to the Yeshivos of Eastern Europe that German Jewish boys went to seek advanced Torah learning. In fact, between the two world wars the German Yeshivos began to flower again, but soon afterwards the Holocaust wiped them out entirely. Even in those final generations however Germany Torah Jewry was characterized by heroes of the spirit who guarded their ancestral heritage zealously and with joy.
In the Holocaust a third of German Jews were slaughtered. While two-thirds of German Jewry escaped with their lives, the communities nurtured over millennia were destroyed. their dispersion throughout many other countries resulted in their becoming a small minority in their new homes. This minority status fostered the rapid disappearance of the specific German-Jewish identity, way of life and customs.
A few communities reestablished themselves on foreign soil after the War, foremost among them K'hal Adath Jeshurun in Washington Heights, N. Y. In these communities the traditions of German Jewry were lovingly preserved. However, the younger generation, by and large, have not maintained their parents' traditions, mostly due to a lack of appreciation of the spiritual basis which formed Minhag Ashkenaz. Only a very small percentage of the second and third-generation is particularly knowledgeable about the cultural/religious heritage of Ashkenaz.
With the destruction caused by the Holocaust, all of the above came to an abrupt halt. As in all acts of cultural genocide, it has taken years to even realize how much has been lost. Given the aging of the survivors of that period, there is a narrow window remaining to collect material that was part of a daily consciousness for many, until 1938 in Germany.
Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz
German Jews established communities throughout the world, in the years immediately following the destruction of European Jewry. Most of these communities were not successful in maintaining their unique identity for longer than two generations and have not been able to secure their continuation. The younger generation has been drawn to other communities, mainly due to the lack of appreciation for, and knowledge of, the rich spiritual and cultural heritage of their ancestors.
Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz will enable the present generation to familiarize itself with this heritage and appreciate it, and to return to practice this heritage, if they are inclined to do so.
If anything is to be passed on to coming generations the people must be inspired to follow their heritage. They must be made aware of its solid halachic foundations and encouraged to maintain its practice. Furthermore, the manuscripts of German Jewry's great Torah scholars need to be preserved and printed, along with their major works of Jewish thought. German Jewry's prayer melodies must be collected and released to the public. Biographies of Germany's leading Torah figures need to be written, and its customs must be gathered and annotated.
The many and varied projects of the Institute serve one sole purpose - researching and revitalizing the spiritual treasures of German Jewry which have been neglected for many years.
The Institute for German Jewish Heritage is active in researching, preserving, and transmitting to the new generations the unique religious lifestyle, customs, and folklore of German Jewry as existed until its destruction during the Holocaust. This activity includes publishing leaflets, pamphlets, and books, and running this Internet site.
Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz (The Institute for German Jewish Heritage) was founded over fifteen years ago expressly for these purposes.
The Institute's activities center around religious traditions that were fostered in Germany, and in the communities of France, Switzerland, France, Denmark and Holland that were under the influence of the common tradition developed in Germany during the Middle Ages.
By collecting, organizing and publishing materials about the totality of the German-Jewish life experience prior to World War II, we hope to accomplish two things. We wish to be able to provide material about a vibrant way of life so that those interested in reaffirming their heritage in their own lives can do so. Additionally, we wish to act as a resource for academics working in the areas of Jewish cultural history, liturgy, and Responsa literature.
A Comprehensive Ashkenaz Library
Information is the fundamental requirement for researching our Ashkenazi heritage. The material gathered on large Card indexes by Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz has already proven a rich treasure of information for Torah scholars, researchers, and ordinary Jews interested in the customs of German Jewry.
The Institute's archives contain thousands of documents related to the recent and past history of German Jewry. Our library already holds some ten thousand books and is growing.
The Machon's archives contain thousands of documents related to the past history of German Jewry, both present and past. These documents will be catalogued so that they can be more easily accessed for research purposes.