On September 11, under the auspices and invitation of the Prime Minister of the Rhineland, Rabbi Dr. Ephraim Kanarfogel, E. Billi Ivry University Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Law at Yeshiva University, traveled to Mainz to participate in an academic conference on the Jewish communities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, known as the kehillot Shu”m. The Rhineland region has been invited to apply to UNESCO for designation as a World Heritage Site, and the conference was held by an international academic committee of professors who are working to highlight and present the cultural heritage and importance of this region for the UNESCO application. In April of 2016, Rabbi Kanarfogel was appointed to the committee, and has been described by the Prime Minister and Ministry of Education of Rhineland-Pfalz as “the leading authority in the world today on Jewish intellectual history during the High Middle Ages, including the many rabbinic scholars of Sh”um and the Rhineland and their place within the history of Jewish learning and thought throughout the world.” The committee consists of about a dozen members, including a majority of professors from European universities, and two professors from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Rabbi Kanarfogel is the only American member of the group. The committee is working together with colleagues from Western Germany on this project.
Rabbi Kanarfogel told The Observer that his role at the conference was “to provide examples and an overview of leading rabbinic scholars from the Rhineland area—aside from the best-known ones such as Rabbeinu Gershom and Rashi (who studied in both Mainz and Worms), and to highlight their important contributions.” Rabbi Kanarfogel explained, “Some of the most important—but not as well-known—Ba’alei ha-Tosafot flourished in this region during the recovery period after the First Crusade…during our academic discussions, we have noted that in terms of advanced Talmudic study, halakha, and piyut, it is fair to say that the Rhineland represents a kind of medieval Jewish ‘cradle of civilization’ that impacts Jewish law and life to this very day.”
However, Rabbi Kanarfogel explained that the significance of designating the Rhineland region as a World Heritage Site goes beyond the far-reaching intellectual history of the area. “Receiving this prestigious designation, and the funds it offers, would directly impact not only the Rhineland as whole, but specifically the Jewish communities that live there now…it is quite remarkable that such strong and public efforts are being made to help German Jewry in one of the many areas so completely ravaged by the Holocaust,” Rabbi Kanarfogel said. For example, Rabbi Kanarfogel explained that one of the programs held over the conference took place at a “newly built, very spacious” Orthodox shul. Additionally, a Rabbi from Israel has begun to spend two weeks each month serving these communities. Rabbi Kanarfogel expressed, “The importance of this kind of trip is that top-flight scholarship gets done in the name of helping Jews and their communities today…There is no better Torah-u-Madda integration than that in my view.”
For Rabbi Kanarfogel, helping the Jewish communities of Western Germany is a central focus of his involvement in the project. “To help Jews, I imagine any of us would travel anywhere,” he said.
This trip was Rabbi Kanarfogel’s second to Mainz to work with the committee on this project. The Rhineland communities have a number of important monumental sites, including the cemeteries in Worms and Mainz, and an ancient mikvah in Speyer. A part of the conference featured a tour of the cemetery in Mainz, though Rabbi Kanarfogel had to “rely on pictures of tombstones taken by colleagues” since he is a kohen, and cannot enter the cemetery. At the conference, Rabbi Kanarfogel spoke about “a ‘brand-new’, very important manuscript citation regarding one of Rashi’s colleagues in Mainz,” which he came across at the National Library of Israel during his most recent research trip there. Rabbi Kanarfogel shared with The Observer that in turn, over the conference, he learned about “some new Jewish manuscript fragments found in the area that relate to the writings of the period under discussion.”
Regarding the trip logistics, Rabbi Kanarfogel stated, “The organizers have been extremely solicitous of my needs, whether making sure that I had strictly kosher food that was brought from the airline commissary in Frankfurt, or allowing me to fly in and out over a relatively brief period of time so that I could make my scheduled Stern honors class on Tuesday afternoon.” Commenting on the experience as whole, Rabbi Kanarfogel reflected, “This was yet another meaningful academic and personal experience in the names of both Yeshiva University and the Jewish communities of Shu”m. As a University Professor, I have the great honor and privilege of traveling to conferences and research events in Israel and Europe with some frequency—but I never tire of seeing all the good that can be done in the course of learning and scholarship.”