Stronger together: A look into German Jewry

Daphne Kaplan, Contributing Editor

Growing up, it seemed as though history had painted Germany harshly. And while to me, the horror of Germany’s actions throughout the 20th century can never be forgotten, it is in sharp contrast to what Germany is today.

Last month, I had the privilege of attending BBYO’S Ambassador Trip to Germany, a nine-day immersive trip that explored Jewish life in Berlin, Frankfurt and Bad Sobernheim, a town an hour outside of Frankfurt, to attend a leadership seminar. Throughout the nine days, 15 teens from around the United States, Lithuania and Canada were immersed in vibrant German Jewry.

Whether attending seminars with local teens from BBYO’s sister organization, ZWST, or exploring memorials and museums, we were constantly aware of the history and its horrors that took place everywhere we went.

We were also bolstered by the vibrancy of the current German Jewish community that lives there.

When we arrived in Frankfurt, we immediately began learning. The first site we visited was the European Central Bank (ECB), the bank that oversees monetary policy in the Eurozone, but also a place from which individuals were deported during World War II. Near the bank stood a Holocaust memorial, constructed with the intent for it to be hard to notice as a representation of how people were once oblivious to the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Despite having initial doubts about the existence of positive German Jewry, we walked to the Old Synagogue, the only synagogue to have survived Kristallnacht in Frankfurt. There, we learned about the history of the synagogue and the vibrancy of it today, spoke with Rabbis, read scrolls and sang in an attempt to help restore the liveliness of the synagogue. Standing and singing in a synagogue with such a profound and important history, I gained a greater sense of pride in the Jewish community in Germany because community members were able to revitalize the synagogue itself despite the violent history.

But these moments of Jewish pride were interspersed with the presence of antisemitism. A few days later, as we were standing in front of Brandenburg Gate, we witnessed a man wearing a kippah aggressively run out of the American Embassy, shouting about being denied the right to pray, and proceeded to walk into the middle of the plaza. Despite wearing a kippah and tzizit, he subsequently put his arms up to pray, which is an entirely non-Judaic practice. We soon discovered that his intent was to mock, rather than respectfully emulate, Jews.

Only thirty minutes later at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews, we witnessed individuals frolicking without appropriate respect among the 2,711 pillars of the memorial itself. It was disheartening to see people carelessly and intentionally gamboling among the stone blocks and spitting at us when they were asked to stop having fun, as if it were a playground.

Startled by these antisemitic incidents, we discovered that events like these occur daily. In fact, according to a statistic posted in the Jewish Museum, there were 401 antisemitic incidents reported to the police in the first half of 2018 in Berlin. Despite the overt events of antisemitism, after talking with the teens part of ZWST at the leadership seminar, it was evident that Jews of Germany strive to lead normal lives.

Having the opportunity to connect with teens who live a different part of the world helped bridge the gap between diaspora Jews. It taught me the importance of branching out and talking to individuals who I would not have been able to otherwise.

Had I not allowed myself to visit Germany, despite my initial ambivalence towards its dark history, my perceptions of what Germany and German Jewry is like today would likely still be negative and dark.  And while antisemitism still exists, and the Jewish community may not be as large or lively as it once was, after attending the Ambassadors to Germany trip, I believe that German Jewry will only continue to flourish.

Attending the leadership seminar and the trip didn’t just give me the opportunity to explore the Jewish community in Germany; it made me a proud Jew. It was evident to me that the younger generations are strong and are capable of altering German Jewry to be a welcoming and safe environment for all Jews, something that is much needed after a history of continuous hatred.

This story was featured in the Volume 36, Issue 6 print edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on May 23, 2019.