Witnessing a City Reborn

As an American Jew born in the shadow of the Holocaust, I never thought I would step foot in Germany. Brought up by parents who refused to buy a Volkswagen — or any German product for that matter — I couldn’t imagine ever choosing to travel there.

Yet I had come to understand that Germany today is one of Israel’s staunchest allies, that more than 30,000 Israelis live in Berlin, and that there is a small but burgeoning Jewish religious community in the city. And so, when recently invited to a conference in Berlin, I eagerly chose to accept the invitation and experience Germany without prejudgment. Sure, once there, I jumped out of my skin when I heard a police siren, and walking the streets in the dreary late fall, I felt I inhabited every Cold War spy novel I had ever read. But I found the experience moving beyond all my expectations.

I was invited to speak at a conference titled “The Role of Women’s Leadership in Faith Communities,” sponsored by the Abraham Geiger College and the University of Potsdam, which brought together feminist theologians, women rabbis of all denominations, and scholars of Jewish feminism to explore the impact of women on religious life over the past 80 years. With participants from the United States, Israel, England, France, Poland, Sweden, and other countries, the event provided fertile ground to explore the many ways in which women have enriched the landscape of Jewish religious life across every spectrum.

The conference also afforded me the opportunity to explore the city of Berlin, a place where Jews once comprised one third of the city. Home to Moses Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786), the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, Berlin in the 18th and 19th centuries provided lush soil for the flourishing of modern Jewish learning, literature, and Judaism. In the 20th century, however, we also know all too well that Berlin was the seat of the Third Reich, which fomented the most rabid anti-Semitism and perpetrated horrendous atrocities against our people. While Berlin is today a united city, we also remember how, in the aftermath of World War II, it was divided by a wall, with synagogues and other landmarks of Jewish history cordoned off in East Berlin.

But it is the memories of the Holocaust that echo most deeply even today in Berlin, and they touch not only the souls of Jews who walk the city’s streets, but virtually all residents and visitors. Coming from a country where the Confederate flag flew over State Capital buildings until just a few months ago, I was stirred by Germany’s conscious reckoning with its racist past and concerted efforts to atone for its crimes.  The German government has, with purpose and poignancy, established memorials, museums, street markers and more. They stand to remind everyone who walks the city of the horrors of the Third Reich, and also of the need to educate, rebuild, and create healthy support for the contemporary Jewish community.

In another effort to heal, Germany today stands at the forefront of international efforts to take in refugees from troubled regions. While I was at the conference, my husband visited one of these facilities in Spandau. There he witnessed over 1,200 refugees from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other countries who have found shelter, food, and clothing in an abandoned tobacco factory transformed by an NGO with government assistance into a temporary home. NGO volunteers come from many countries, including Israel, and from all walks of life. The shelter offers both children and adults German language classes, assists them in navigating the bureaucratic process of obtaining, where possible, residency status, and ultimately finds them more permanent living arrangements. The Spandau facility is only one of several in Berlin alone, and by year’s end, Germany expects to take in a million asylum seekers.

Shabbat proved to be the highlight of our time in Berlin. Praying at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, which meets within what remains of the once magnificent 19th century Neue Synagogue, we were enveloped by the enthusiasm of a diverse community of Jews creating vital Jewish life in the shadows of the partially destroyed main sanctuary. The sounds of 19th century classical liturgy reinterpreted by the magnificent voices of young cantorial students carried the congregation of regular worshipers, tourists, and spiritual seekers to new heights of religious meaning; and the inspiring words of Rabbi Gesa Ederberg about the need to welcome the displaced — just as our patriarchs did — moved us all. I drew strength from the enthusiasm of the congregation for cultivating a vibrant Jewish community in a city once — not that long ago — dedicated to its destruction.

My admiration for the passion and commitment of this small but lively community was heightened because I left New York City right after spending the previous Shabbat at Camp Isabella Freedman for the biannual retreat of List College, the undergraduate school of JTS. More than 70 students, deans, faculty, and board members gathered to study, pray, hike, sing, and reflect together on Jewish ethics, global responsibility, and the imperatives for Jewish leadership. Being with them, I too was swept up by their passion, intelligence, joy, and enthusiasm.

Like the Berlin Jews that I met, List College students also intentionally cultivate Jewish community, consciously embracing the serious Jewish learning and living that they know is vital for a thriving Jewish future. Moreover, they recognize how privileged we are to join together freely and openly to embrace Jewish life and consider our responsibilities to the Jewish world, the United States and the world in which we all live. These very different and yet deeply connected Jewish experiences heralded for me the potential for a robust future for the Jewish people and deep gratitude to the dedicated individuals who work fervently and generously on its behalf.

By week’s end, my initial wariness about traveling to Berlin had been replaced by unexpected admiration for the country. Rather than avoid spending money, my husband and I bought Hanukkah gifts for our grandchildren. We returned home deeply cognizant of how the very same city birthed devastation and flourishing; tyranny and democracy. With this in mind, it is incumbent on us all to always remember the past, be attentive to the present, and work toward a better future.

About the Author
Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz is Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
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