The Renewal of Jewish Life in Germany

This past week I had the pleasure of being an invited presenter at Limmud Germany, which took place about 1 hour East of Berlin at a former East Germany workers retreat. Being one of 500 German Jews in attendance, (the rest actually live in Germany; I just carry the passport) was an amazing and eye opening experience, and since the end of the conference, I have not been able to get the song ‘Am Israel Chai’(The Jewish people live) out of my head, and I have always hated this song.

For most Jews in Israel or North America, Germany represents death and the end of possibility. But after being here for just over a week, what I see is life and potential. The Berlin Jewish communty, for example, which recently had less than 3,000 Jewish residents, now has more than 12,000 and they have come from all over the world: Russia, Israel, France, Netherlands, U.K., U.S.A., and more. These “chalutzim” (pioneers) are reshaping what was once the center of Askenazi Jewish thought. In the style of great German Jewish thinkers like Buber, Fromm, Rashi, Hirsch and Marx, they are debating what it means to be Jewish, to be ethical human beings and to be German.

For those of us in the Jewish environmental community, this is of particular interests as the Germans are the ‘greenest’ and most environmental conscious people in the world. A new initiative of the German Jewish community entitled ‘Jews Go Green’ is currenly in development, and I look forward to Germany once again becoming the frontline in modern Jewish thought.

My trip has been an interesting combination of experiencing Jewish life in Germany and viewing Jewish death, but the latter has been hard to focus on with the former such a pleasant surprise. I am writing currently from Wittlich, near Trier/Luxembourg, the town from which my grandfather was forced to flee in 1937. While no Jews remain in this small city, the community has gone above and beyond, restoring the synagogue and cemetary, building a Jewish museum, reaching out to each and every survivor and their families.

I came to my grandfathers birth place expecting to spend my time in mourning, instead I have been overjoyed by the response of the local community, their dedication to the memory of those lost and their desire to share the motto ‘Never again!’ Our local hosts were delighted by my interests in attending Shavuot services, so together we had the pleasure of joining the commmunity of Trier, just 30 minutes away. While most of the community was old, there was a core group of excited young adults and even an overly excited child, the German Jewish story is clearly not over.

Back in Berlin, before coming to Wittlich, I was faced with a dilemma I never thought I would have to face in Germany. For Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Tuesday night/Shavuot eve), I had to choose between the local synagogue service & learning, and the group of secular Israelis and Germans staying up all night reading the Book of Ruth in a private home. An active synagogue and a living room Havurah (community) in the heart of Berlin, represents an amazing return and renewal. I chose the Havurah, and while we may not have uttered a single prayer or lit a candle, we sat up all night discussing what it means to be Jews. It was a truly Jewish experience!

I am delighted to report that the spirits of Buber, Rashi, Marx and my Gandfather Paul live! The intellectual curiosity that created the Jewish enlightenment, the reform and orthodox movements, Marxism, etc. survives and even thrives! For the first time in my life I am proud to be a German citizen. I look forward to watching this diverse community grow and can’t wait till once again we can start to follow the German Jewish lead, hopefully down an ecologically sustainable path.

Am Israel Chai! The Jewish People Live!!

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