New Pope Visits German Synagogue

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to a German synagogue was replete with symbolism: most notably, the potential for positive relations between the country’s Jewish community and a pope who served in the German army during World War II.

For Germany’s Jewish community, which has tripled to more than 100,000 since 1989 with the arrival of former Soviet Jews, the live broadcast of Benedict’s visit during World Youth Day in Germany served another purpose.

Millions of Germans tuning in to ARD-TV last Friday had a chance to look inside a German synagogue and hear an introduction to Judaism from a Cologne Jewish community board member, Michael Rado, as they waited for the pope to arrive.

They learned that Cologne is home to Germany’s oldest Jewish community, with documents dating back to the fourth century. They heard that this synagogue was rebuilt in 1959, on the site where a synagogue erected in 1899 was destroyed during Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938.

Then they witnessed the rabbi’s warm welcome of Benedict, the moment of silence in which they remembered the victims of the Holocaust and the procession to the bimah as a choir sang “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem.”

For the Catholic Church, the public-relations value against the backdrop of simmering anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe could not be underestimated.

But it could have been much different. While many Germans were proud when their cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, was elected pope in April — the popular Bild Zeitung tabloid bore the headline, “We Are Pope!” — for many Jews, Ratzinger embodied a Catholic conservatism that sees other faiths as secondary.

Add to that the new pope’s boyhood membership in the Hitler Youth and his recent failure to condemn terrorism against Israel, and the possibility for tension was there.

For now, however, skepticism seems to have waned as the pope’s visit marks more evidence of his commitment to interfaith relations.

The event was a historic first: Never before had a pope officially visited a German synagogue. In fact, this was only the second time a pope has formally entered a Jewish house of worship; the late Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue of Rome in April 1986.

Some said the presence of Israeli Ambassador Shimon Stein might bode well for relations between the Vatican and Israel, strained over Benedict’s recent failure to condemn terrorism against the Jewish state.

Others demanded that the pope follow words with deeds by opening the doors to the Vatican’s World War II-era archive, shedding light on the Church’s wartime stance toward the Holocaust.

In his remarks to some 500 people gathered in the Cologne Synagogue, the pope stressed the future, not the past.

Worried about growing anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Europe, determined to teach tolerance to Catholic youth and noting the negative role played by the Church in the past, Benedict declared his commitment to cooperation with Jews.

He added that interfaith dialogue must be carried out in recognition of “existing differences.”

“In those areas in which, due to our profound convictions in faith, we diverge, and indeed precisely in those areas, we need to show respect and love for one another,” the pope said to a standing ovation.

Some said afterward that the pope should have mentioned Israel, as well as the specific crimes of the church, such as the massacres carried out during the papally approved Crusades of the 11th-13th centuries and the brutalities of the Spanish Inquisition.

But Cologne Rabbi Natanael Teitelbaum said he is “happy with the pope’s remarks. He looked back on Jewish history, and said he is against terrorism and for mutual respect, and those are the most important things.”

Teitelbaum’s address also drew a standing ovation.

Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said it did not matter that the pope did not directly address the subject of terrorism against Israel.

“That will be between the Vatican and the Israeli government,” said Spiegel, who survived the Holocaust in hiding and came back to Germany as a boy with his parents.

“My heart is full of the impressions of today,” Spiegel added at a news conference. “We are well on the way to mutual respect and, as the pope said, to mutual love.”

After the ceremony, guests — including local and national politicians, religious leaders and members of the Cologne Jewish community — personally greeted the pope on the bimah, shook his hand and presented gifts, including a large shofar.

There also were other types of gifts. George Ban, executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, gave the pope a brochure about the work of his foundation, which supports Jewish education in Central and Eastern Europe.

“I don’t think it is very often that one has the chance to have your organization known by the No. 1 person in the Christian world,” Ban said.

Some guests came away with a souvenir, too: The royal-blue yarmulkes printed for the occasion with the date and the words “Besuch-Papst Benedikt XVI” — “Visit of Pope Benedict XVI.”


Create Festive Table in a Blue Mood


Following are pointers on livening up your Chanukah table from “Kosher by Design” by Susie Fishbein (Mesorah, 2003).

1. In the Beginning: Dress your dining table with a snazzy tablecloth. A gold one will glitter. Using narrow runners and/or yards of wide ribbons, preferably in shades of blue and gold, weave them under and above each other, creating a lattice effect.

2. Gifted Settings: Create place settings that look like Chanukah presents by using placemat-sized rectangles of Styrofoam (about 2-inches thick). Cover them with blue fabric. Straight pins will secure the fabric to the underside of rectangles. To simulate a bow, wrap gold tulle ribbon on a diagonal around two opposite corners of rectangles.

3. Box Appeal: Find boxes about 3-inches square. Cover boxes with Mylar foil wrapping paper. Tie a bow around them with gold ribbon. With two-sided tape, attach them to the upper left-hand corner of placemats.

4. Got the Gelt: In front of each placemat, situate a gold netted sack of Chanukah gelt. Write each guest’s name in gold ink on place cards. Then, with narrow gold ribbon, tie place cards to gelt sacks.

5. Twinkling Fantasy: Flood the center of the table with as many blue votive candleholders as you can find in every size and shape. Fill them with candles and light just before guests arrive.

6. Gaming Table: Scatter around dreidels in varying sizes and shapes, ones made from silver, gold, porcelain, plastic, wood — and anything blue. Antique dreidels are particularly decorative.

7. Blue Plate Special: Set the table with blue dishes, preferably ones that mix and match. Place a salad plate of one pattern over a dinner plate of another. Wal-Mart sells glass blue plates for $1.25 each.

8. Color Wave Silverware: Set the table with gold-plated flatware or stainless steel with blue plastic handles.

9. Crystal Collection: Buy glasses and wine goblets with blue striations or purchase glassware with a blue tint, found at stores such as Crate and Barrel.

10. Clear Water: Buy mineral water in blue bottles.

11. Fruit of the Vine: Buy wine in blue bottles.

12. Congratulations: You’ve created a show-stopping setting! Photograph your table for inspiration when planning your next holiday meal.


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

As Shabbat inches closer each week, my kids usually don’t ask what I’m making for dinner. Instead, they ask, “Who’s coming for dinner?” This is because they realize that even if I were to serve something as exotic as Thai or Moroccan food (unlikely), it’s our guests who really spice up our Shabbat and holiday tables. It’s kind of like diner’s roulette: Often, we meet our guests for the very first time when they walk through our front door for the meal.

As part of an Aish HaTorah community that emphasizes kiruv (outreach to unaffiliated Jews), we enjoy hosting guests who are new to Judaism. These are folks who may have attended another Aish HaTorah class or singles event and expressed interest in coming to shul or to a meal with a Shabbat-observant family. When more secular Jews are willing to open the door to tradition, we who are already observant swing our own doors open wide to let them in.

Here’s a typical recent Shabbat: On Friday night, my husband and kids returned from shul with a small army of eight guests, five of whom were total strangers to us. They had been placed with us by an Aish HaTorah teacher who spends countless hours each week matching up host families with guests who have expressed a desire to explore traditional Judaism. In this sense, the meals we host are only the appetizer; the main course, if selected from the menu, is a life of deeper spiritual meaning through Jewish observance.

Mikhail Ekshtut, a single 32-year-old civil engineer in Seattle, attended his first traditional Shabbat dinner more than four years ago. Since then, when traveling in his position as a chaplain assistant in the Air Force Reserve, or in trying to meet like-minded, single Jewish women in other cities, he has shared Shabbat meals with families in Birmingham, Atlanta, New York and Israel.

“Even if you’re a half a world away, it feels like home,” Ekshtut said of these experiences. “Shabbat brings to focus what Judaism is all about and is a turning point for a lot of Jews, including my sister and me. This is what I want for my future family.”

Living in the very diverse city of Los Angeles, our guests often reflect the Diaspora. Over the years, we have hosted Jews from Morocco, Mexico, Bosnia, Ukraine, Egypt, Rhodes, England, France, Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Gibraltar, Iran, Syria, and other lands too numerous to mention. We are always stimulated to learn about Jewish life in these other lands, and have also heard dramatic stories of escape from Iran, Yemen and other countries where Jews have been oppressed.

If things go well, these “strangers” at our table won’t remain strangers for long. Over the nearly 16 years that we have been hosting meals, my husband and I have been gratified to watch newcomers slowly grow in their Jewish observance. Friendships have blossomed. Some of our dinner or lunch guests become sleepover guests when they no longer feel comfortable driving to shul. Most gratifying is when these singles marry and begin families of their own. Then they proudly become the hosts for a new generation of “underaffiliated” Jews.

Because the epidemic of singleness in the Jewish community is so acute, we try to angle our Shabbat hospitality toward this group. Of course, predicting chemistry between the sexes is a fine art. But over a relaxed Shabbat dinner with a small crowd, men and women can subtly get a sense of one another without the awkwardness or pressure of a typical singles event. A Shabbat table is not a surefire way to meet a husband or wife, but it’s a great place to start. Often, guests who feel the special warmth and spiritual nourishment of a Shabbat experience will take small steps toward spiritual growth, such as taking classes, learning about Jewish prayer and going to Israel to study. Eventually, if they are still single and still committed to a traditional Jewish lifestyle, they may engage a shadchan (matchmaker) to help them find their besheret (soulmate).

I admit that sometimes, while chopping vegetables for a salad or standing in the market for another few items I had forgotten to purchase earlier, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this again?” After all, each meal entails careful menu planning, shopping, cooking, serving and cleaning up. It’s a lot of work. But those moments of doubt are fleeting.

Not long ago, I received in the mail two lovely thank-you notes and a beautiful hand-made afghan — each an expression of gratitude from individual guests whom we had hosted for a Shabbat meal. We are always touched to realize how much one Shabbat experience can mean to Jews who feel adrift in secular society and have discovered a taste of what they are looking for in our own home.

And to think that we can offer this potential to our less-affiliated Jewish brothers and sisters, all for the price of a few chickens! I don’t think there’s a better bargain around.

Judy Gruen’s most recent book is “Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout” (Champion Press, 2003). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and four children, and recently hosted 14 guests for a Friday night dinner.