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After Halle, fear and joy (yes, both) in Berlin

On our solidarity visit to Jews in Germany, alongside the tragedy and thoughts of leaving, we found a desire to celebrate and build
Illustrative: Rabbi Rebecca Blady at a Havdalah service in 2017. (Courtesy, Base Berlin)
Illustrative: Rabbi Rebecca Blady at a Havdalah service in 2017. (Courtesy, Base Berlin)

Along the cobblestones of Kreuzberg, across a courtyard and up many flights of stairs stands a spacious apartment. Inside is a warm and bright greatroom, with a kitchen and wooden table laden with home-cooked food, a lime green velvet couch, and a red Persian rug. The brick walls are lined with a photo exhibit, and the rooms are filled with a small family that calls this place home. This is Hillel Germany’s Base Berlin, a pluralistic community space run by Rabbis Rebecca Blady and Jeremy Borovitz.

“The amazing thing about Base is that everyone feels welcome there because the Base people are open-minded and warm-hearted. This gives everyone the chance to live and experience their own Judaism, without someone telling them how they are supposed to do it,” Nina Peretz, chairwoman of Friends of Fraenkelufer Synagogue Association told me. “Rebecca and Jeremy are wonderful and dedicated teachers who believe in the power of Jewish learning.”

On Yom Kippur, Rebecca and Jeremy were in Halle with a group from Base Berlin. Thanks to the heroic actions of community members and no thanks to the absence of requested police presence, a massacre was avoided in Halle when a gunman failed to force his way into the synagogue, turning to kill two bystanders nearby instead.

The following evening my coworker Sarah and I were on a flight to Germany. Sarah would go to Halle for Shabbat, while I would stay in Berlin. We work for the Bronfman Center at New York University, and for many years now Bronfman has been guided by the belief that when communities are hurting, it is our duty as Jews to show up and be a support in whatever way we can. “When coming from a distance, you cannot go with the mindset that you are being heroic, or in some way bringing salvation. You are not,” explains Rabbi Sarna, executive director of the Bronfman Center.

“Life for those affected has been dramatically altered for the worse. The very nature of crises is that the path forward is unclear. People do not know what to do. If it becomes clearer what can be done, it is the people who are there who will do it. If you are there, then you can help do it.”

“I shouldn’t have to be afraid to go and pray,” Paul said with bitter melancholy. Paul is my partner and he was in synagogue in Berlin on Yom Kippur. He is a member of the ELES student network, a German-Jewish scholarship fund and leadership program that celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend with a large gathering and induction of new members. I have spent some time in the Berlin Jewish community, building friendships and professional connections, but this connection made my fear far more palpable and linger far longer.

Sarah and I were coming to witness, to comfort, to say simply to European Jews that when they hurt, we hurt too. “It makes you realize that the Jewish community is this living organism,” said Nina. But I was also acutely aware that I was entering a space that wasn’t mine, to support a community I do not play a part in. It would take a balancing act of tzimtzum – of contracting in order to make space – Paul said, to be present in a way that did not center myself.

I spent Shabbat and the first two days of Sukkot with many different parts of the Berlin Jewish community – students and scholars, members of the Lauder and Fraenkelufer communities. Sarah and I marched in a protest against anti-Semitism and racism with 10,000 Berliners, and toured the Neue Synagogue. I had Shabbat and Sukkot meals that lasted for hours, discussing political theory and European Jewish communal politics, philosophy and American pluralism. I stood in shul while my friend Mollie recited Bircat Ha’Gomel, thanking God for survival. I received thanks from those who were moved to learn that American Jews would fly across the world simply to be present with them in their pain.

But what I remember the most is Saturday night at Base Berlin, where Rebecca and Jeremy hosted close to 75 people in their home for Havdalah and a jam session. “I told them to take the weekend to themselves to relax, to be together as a family. Instead they did this,” Nina said, gesturing to the room filled with Jews of every age, from every background, German and ex-pat, celebrating life and the beginning of a new week. “We just realize we have to fight anti-Semitism even more.” Singing and the smell of mulled cider filled the warm air. The joy in the room reached its pinnacle with the singing of “Am Yisrael Chai,” the Jewish people live. Singing and dancing, whirling faster and faster and ever louder with the joy of being alive, and the determination to overcome the trauma of survival. As the singing came to an end, Jeremy invited us to “end with a prayer for peace, because we could all use more peace in this world. I just want you to love more.”

After I left Base Berlin I went to join ELES to celebrate a decade of German-Jewish scholarship and creativity, of investing in knowledge and leadership and art. I spent the rest of the night dancing to remixed Jewish and Israeli music with Paul, who left Europe to make his Jewish life in America, and with some of our friends, who have stayed to build their own.

There is a famous story in the Talmud, of a disagreement between the scholars of the Houses of Hillel and of Shammai that lasted for three years. Finally, a voice came down from Heaven and proclaimed, “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim,” these and these are the words of the living God. Two things, two interpretations can be true at once, and both come to teach us what it means to be alive and to live in the world as Jews. We may build a path in one direction or another, but both are holy.

Jewish life in Europe is hard, there is no question. There is less money, less support, less security – both existential and physical. Some people leave, or they wish that they could. They are scared to let their children wear kippot in the street, scared to go to synagogue. But people also want to come, to build, to learn; Berlin is filled with Jews seeking new opportunities. And people want to stay in the hometowns of their childhoods and create new life.

“A snapshot only gives you one moment in time. A movie gives you the whole picture, but most people don’t get movies,” a new friend explained on Sukkot. When we reduce Jewish life into a snapshot of tragedy or joy we do European communities a disservice, collapsing their multifaceted lives into the best and worst moments, proclaiming that they need saving or that they are the idealized future. The truth is somewhere in between, just like it is for all of us. It can be hard to remember that people outside of yourself have interior lives as rich as your own. So too of communities.

Eilu v’eilu. These and these. Global Jewry must remember that this multiplicity – of experience, of Judaism – is the only way forward as we build resilience, keep ourselves safe, and work as an ecosystem that encompasses spaces for all kinds of Jews to build the Jewish lives they chose for themselves, in places they call home.

About the Author
Chelsea Garbell is the Research Scholar & Program Manager for the Applied Research Collective for American Jewry at NYU.
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