I have just returned from a month of teaching (they call it “lecturing”) at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin. I accepted the invitation to teach “outreach” to a group of rabbinical students because I fervently believe that the methods we have developed at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute can be successfully adapted to the German Jewish community as it rebuilds itself, a direct result of an influx of Jews from Russia, Israeli immigrants, and a large number of Jews-by-Choice—all of whom have both bolstered and eclipsed the tiny post-World War II Jewish community.
While it was probably one of the most interesting months of my life, I can best describe Berlin (and for that matter, most of Germany) as a place of contradictions. As much as I tried to focus on the future, I felt the tug of being constantly dragged into the past. Even things that appear simple, such as exiting a subway (U) station, force me back into it when I encounter a sign telling people (those who pay attention) the various destinations of those local Jews taken from their homes and transported through that particular station. Or looking for an address, only to find a “stumble stone” in front of it, indicating the former owners and where they had been deported and killed. Even taking a different route home from the grocery store, I stumbled across a plaque which suggested where the local synagogue (now an apartment building) once had been. Memorials abound if you look for them.
I didn’t want to like Berlin. I didn’t want to like the people there. And yet, I found that I enjoyed my time immensely. The people are friendly. The city is warm and inviting, interesting and exciting. Each encounter, in the classroom and on the street, was fascinating. Engaging the local Jewish community permitted me to relive the Jewish history I had learned, particularly the music and movement of 19th century German Reform Judaism, which, in some cases, the community is attempting to recapture once again. But then the reality struck again. Each Jewish institution in Berlin has three levels of security that any individual is forced to go through if s/he is successful—and “if” is a big word—in gaining entry to the building, something that often was not the case. And new models of Judaism, those that are participative and progressive, are struggling for recognition and support.
The barriers in the community are high. And the organization of the community is complex. Some of these barriers may be necessary; others are not. But I believe that we can together scale those barriers and grow the German Jewish community and rebuild the institutions and its constituencies. I hope that in my time there, I was able to begin a conversation about inclusion and opening the tent of the German Jewish community that will continue now that I have returned to the States, and one that help break down the barriers in a country that still has so many conflicting memories.
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