Moving Commentary 5: Berlin

From Israel, a different chunk of the globe falls within easy travel range to the former American. Should someone have a reason or predisposition to visit Europe, frequent and cheap flights make many cities practically a short hop. Thus, the Old Word becomes a new world to explore and experience.

Except that for a Jew – for whom memory is a mitzvah – any newness is dulled by the oppressiveness of the old. Especially in Berlin.

I’ve returned from a very brief visit there. It would not have been close to the top of my bucket list, but one of my sons recently moved there as a founding member of a new kollel. The birth there of a new granddaughter suddenly moved Berlin to must-go status.

I’ve had plenty of interaction with Germans, especially the newer generations. I did not expect to feel the intensity of the past as much as I did. The move to Israel made things worse. I started the day in a place where I felt a sense of pride (and even possession) in every precious inch. A few hours later, I walked where no Jew can ever feel fully at home. In the morning, I was as visibly Jewish as I could be. Getting off the plane, I donned a cap (this, I was told, was the practice of most of the frum community) to be a bit less in-your-face to the non-Jews. Galus had returned, big time.

Wearing a cap doesn’t enable one to hide his Jewishness – only to appear a bit more timid. I experienced no anti-Semitism. Then again, Berlin is in a way the least German of German cities. The people, the stores, the eateries are a mélange of cultures and populations. Berlin has long been a magnet for all sorts of people. If you want to feel authentically German, you have to go to Frankfurt or Munich.

The past, however, is not too far away. Getting off a train, I noticed the destination sign for the train on the other side of the platform: Wansee. It was a destination we had been to before.

Here, in 1942, senior Nazi government officials met to discuss the implementation of the Final Solution.

One cannot escape the sense that a Jewish presence in Germany – indeed anywhere in Europe – can only be maintained artificially. Within Berlin (as opposed to other places in Germany), the threat is not a resurgent far-right, but the Muslim population. The Adass Jisroel community organization in the old East Berlin (a continuation, at least in name, of the community before the War) are all housed in one complex: the Rabbiner Seminar (continuing the famous Hildesheimer Seminary), the Skoblo Synagogue (a Polish shul before the War), a day school, and now the Kollel. The complex is guarded by serious security inside, while the police not only maintain an armed presence outside, they do so from a permanent booth. (You will see the same in Rome, although the German police presence seemed much more professional to me.) Having visited, however, I viscerally get why some people have dedicated time and energy to keep alive communities that are anachronisms in a Europe that has turned hostile to Jews. Throwing in the towel would seem like granting the bad guys a victory over the Jews that they should not be allowed. While the best answer to their malign intentions is the further upbuilding of thriving Torah communities in the State of Israel, they should not so easily be granted their wish to see a Europe that is Judenrein.

Sidebar: Quite apart from the issues that affect us directly as Jews, one part of Berlin should be seen by every American. My son lives a half a block from the street down which the infamous wall ran. It actually ran down many streets; it was many miles long, surrounding Free Berlin from the surrounding oppression of the communist east. His location, however, was one of the more famous spots. A bit of a hill on the western side gave people in the garrison city an opportunity to at least trade glances with their captive relatives on the other side of the wall. At one point, a platform was built to make this even easier. Today, a few blocks of this street offer testimony – through photos and accompanying text – to the crimes of the Soviet system and the allure of freedom, which made the American Revolution call of “Give me liberty or give me death” a plan of action for scores of East Berliners. Many did not make it. There are photos of the East Germans firing on people sprinting through what was called the Death Zone, aiming to kill them for the crime of wanting freedom. There are photos of those who lay dying in the street, inches away from loved ones in the West who could do nothing to save them. These should be seen by all who take the freedoms of the West for granted.

We return to the main topic. Warm, fuzzy feelings of Jewish euphoria, then, were not to be had in the context of the old. They were, however, available by looking only at the new. Something special and touching is going on in Berlin. (I write here only about the East Berlin community. There is another across the city in West Berlin, but I did not have an opportunity to visit it.) It is today one of few communities where there are many more 8 year olds than 18 year olds. It’s growing, not shrinking. There is a growing day school, several shuls, a kosher market, and a program that continues to send German-speaking rabbis to the rest of the country, named after the famous pre-War Hildesheimer Seminary. The shul I attended Shabbos morning brought scores of people together for an extensive kiddush that is a weekly feature. (Alas, there is no pizza shop.) The Lauder Foundation has sunk resources into this community, and had the fortune to retain the energetic and astute Rabbi Josh Spinner to coordinate its efforts across Europe.

It has been noted before that even the smallest Jewish communities can be riven by discord. (Visiting refuseniks in Moscow in 1988, we were saddened to observe tiny sub-communities, each having little or nothing to do with the others. There was a Chabad faction, a Mizrachi faction, a yeshivish faction. They all pretty much went their own ways.) Within the nascent Berlin kehila, there are at least three groups with very different temperaments and needs. Immigrants from Russia, despite having lived in Berlin for many years, have a very different take on Yiddishkeit, politics, moderation, and authority than do the yordim from Israel. Both of these are different from the baalei teshuvah and recent converts, who are very much on an upward learning trajectory.

The factionalizing of the small community has meant an inability to rally around a single, dynamic rav. There is no de facto Torah authority as of yet. Without such a person, you might think that no real growth can occur.

Here is the pleasant surprise that snatches a bit of victory from the jaws of divisiveness. While they cannot as of yet agree on a leader and rav, they can agree that Torah is important. This made Berlin a perfect candidate for an outreach-oriented kollel. Both R Spinner and BMG director R. Aharon Kotler realized this when they met. Lakewood had both the manpower and the organizational ability to bring the project to fruition in short order. Five couples moved to Berlin after Sukkos, and the locals seem to love them!

Not every community takes off when it imports a kollel. Not every kollel has proven to be the best match for its community. But sometimes it is a pure joy to behold Torah working its magic, as it is doing in Berlin, binding Jews to each other, and them to their Creator.

Returning to Israel, I have a heightened sense of privilege. I recall some of my favorite words of the Meshech Chochmah (Devarim 30:12) (my paraphrase):

Vouchsafed to the heart of a Jew is a commodity that will lead straight to a return to Hashem. In the Jewish heart he will find a love for the Jewish people. That love guarantees an eventual return to Hashem! When a Jew is in touch with the love of his people that became part of his nature at Sinai, he will connect with his spiritual roots. By returning to his people, a Jew will certainly return as well to the G-d of that people.

I am grateful to HKBH that I am able to appreciate and participate in the learning of our Torah that illuminates the mind and is a balm for the soul. And, as of late, I am able to do so among millions of Jews who only recently have begun to remember what it is to function as a nation- one that, consciously or not, has Hashem at its core.

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9 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    Thank you for this poignant reminder of things to be grateful for, and things to remember.

  2. dr. bill says:

    I have never visited Berlin or almost any part of Germany except for short business meetings. The exception was Bonn where walking along the river I thought about the Rishonim who lived there many, many centuries ago. I read the Raavyah on aveilus sitting shivah for my father.

    I would love to see an academic history of Jewish Berlin between the wars. Except perhaps for Slabodka or Vilna, and I doubt it, did a city of that time house gedolim like Rav Chaim Heller, RDTH, Rav Elya Kaplan, RYYW not to mention the Rav, the Rebbe, Rav Hutner, etc. We must go back to the 1880’s in Volozhin when Rav Kook, Rav Meltzer, Rav Polachek, Rav Bengis, etc. studied with the Netziv, Rav Chaim, etc. to find a comparable set of genius / gedolim. And of course, Berlin also housed any number of first-rate traditionally Jewish academics, something never seen since the times of the Rishonim.

    I wish your son hatzlachah; he has a wonderful tradition to even partially restore.

  3. David F says:

    I dunno.
    I just don’t see how anyone can feel comfortable living anywhere in Germany or giving them a z’chus kiyum through our Torah study. I’d sooner we just all pull out and allow the country to go down the same trajectory as all the other countries that feel to the wayside after persecuting and driving the Jews out. Spain is a shadow of it’s former self. Rome is non-existent. Portugal exists on a map only. Greece exists in textbooks only.
    The accursed Germans deserve a far worse fate than all of them.
    Perhaps the Jews stuck there deserve better, but I have no sympathy for a Russian Jew who finally escaped the hell of communism only to move the the hell of fascism.

  4. Raymond says:

    I personally would never set foot in Germany, not only for what they did to our people, but also for what they would still do our people once they feel that they can get away with it. Part of me even thinks that the real reason why Germany has allowed so many islamoNazis to move to their country, is to do their dirty work of murdering Jews, only this time, without getting directly blamed for it.

    And as for us Jews retreating from Germany or Europe constituting a kind of defeat for us, all I can say is that there is a time and a place for everything. Europe is not our place. Israel is. Sometimes retreating from battle helps us to fight another day. Such a principle applies when it comes to Europe. Other times we need to stand and fight with pride and strength. That principle applies when it comes to the only proper place for us Jews, which of course is Israel.

    I realize that what I am expressing here is dark and cynical, but it is based on countless centuries of almost unceasing antisemitism that the world has shown us and continues to show us. The world obviously hates us, and so it is time for us Jews to retreat and go home to our Jewish homeland.

  5. dave says:

    I appreciate your sentiments and I wish your son Hatzlacha, but I must say that a full Jewish pull-out from Europe will be no surrender. It will be a smashing victory to remove our people, our brains, our businesses and our money out of Europe and leave them with the miserable masses of mostly male Muslim marauders that they have allowed to repopulate their countries in lieu of having their own babies. Europe is a cauldron of left wing socialism, Islamic hyper-immigration and resurgent right wing nationalism that will invariably meet around the back at the only topic they can agree upon – Jew hating.
    While the security provided for your son’s community may be very professional, it is also something else – very necessary. Why must we live a life like that in every country in continental Europe? And I don’t think that England is too far off from this experience.
    Europe is a blood-soaked Jewish graveyard. I have no warm nostalgic feeling for that.

    • Raymond says:

      Dave, I just want to say that what you expressed here is so identical to my own thoughts, that it makes me wonder if you are really me…shades of the Twilight Zone!

  6. Cvmay says:

    David & Raymond – I’m on board with you.

    There are many other welcoming kehillos that BMG can send a Kollel to.

  7. Joel rich says:

    Speaking about Meshech Chochmas:
    There is a very famous “Meshech Chochma” in Bechukotai. On the Tochecha in Vayikra (26:44), R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk 1843-1926) adds the following philosophical gloss:

    “If the Jew thinks that Berlin is Jerusalem … then a raging storm wind will uproot him by his trunk and subject him before a faraway gentile nation… a tempest will arise and spread its roaring waves, and swallow, and destroy, and flood forth without pity. Therefore, you will not be calm, nor shall there be a resting place for the sole of your foot is a blessing, for as long as the Jewish People are uncomfortable in exile, they will yearn to return to their homeland.”


    • Raymond says:

      Chills go up and down my spine as I read the quoted words of the Meshech Chochma. Even aside from the very bleak subject we are talking about here, it reminds me in an even general way that perhaps if I delve deeply enough into the Torah teachings of our collective Jewish ancestors, that I will find there a wisdom about the world unlike a wisdom that exists anywhere else, a kind of transcendent wisdom, as if our people sees G-d’s Creation from the point of view of G-d Himself. And I find such a possibility to be the most spine chilling of all.

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