Rebirth of Jewish life in Berlin

Once the infamous Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the sweeping reconstruction that began in West Berlin at the war’s end,was repeated and even accelerated in what had been the Communist controlled East Berlin.  Spectacular shopping complexes, elegant new hotels and office towers dominate the now united city.  But, at the same time, the horrendous fate of Berlin’s once thriving Jewish community of some 160,000, largest in Europe, was observed with somber memorials now found throughout Berlin.

Included are the moving Holocaust Museum, the “Stumbling Stones”, the Topography of Terror on the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters, Platform 17 from which men, women and children were loaded like cattle into rail cars to be transported to their death.  Wall murals with the names and locations of all the infamous concentration camps are in building lobbies. All these and others remind visitors as well as residents of the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis against what had been a thriving Jewish community. At the war’s end, it had essentially vanished.

In the view of many, if not most, Jews living elsewhere, Berlin could never – should never – again be a home for Jews.  Yet to the surprise, even dismay of many, Jewish life today has returned to Berlin.  Upon learning that as many as 30,000 Jews have come to Germany and settled in Berlin, an elderly woman in the Fairfax district asked almost in disbelief, “Have they forgotten?”

By way of response, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, chairman of the Chabad Jewish Educational Center, in Berlin by way of Brooklyn, says flatly, “That is an irrelevant question.  The fact is that they are here and they should be welcomed with love and warmth and we should invest every resource to enhance their Jewish awareness.”  He adds, “We’ll never forget what the Nazis have done but it’s not in our interest to seek revenge. We have to do something for the present and undo what the Nazis tried to bring about.  We owe that to the six million holy souls, to answer darkness with light.”

Still, Jewish life in Berlin today is diverse and reflects an admittedly complicated, often a confusing tapestry of social, national and economic fabrics.

Only a relatively small number of Jews resided in Berlin after the war while it was still divided between the East and the West. Once Germany was politically, socially and economically again unified in 1990 things began to change dramatically. First was a wave of thousands of Jews mainly from Russia but other countries of Eastern Europe who came to escape discrimination and who were welcomed by the German government.  Adding to their numbers soon came entrepreneurs from abroad including the U.S. who found in Berlin’s booming economy attractive business opportunities.  Then most recently some 15,000, mostly young, secular Israelis, have moved to Berlin to enjoy what one described as a “better life” where it could be enjoyed a cost of living far less than back in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Put together, the social, religious, artistic and commercial interests of these various groups from various countries have created something few believed would ever exist again – a Renaissance of Jewish life in Berlin. Physical evidence of this rebirth is seen throughout Berlin, but mainly in the eastern neighborhoods that historically were centers of Jewish life until the rise of Nazis in the mid-1930s.

Something of a showplace is Rabbi Teichtal’s Chabad Lubawitsch Center. Opened in 2007 at a cost of $7.8 million, it was the first Jewish facility in Berlin built entirely with private funds. The three story structure of some 25,000 square feet includes a sanctuary accommodating 250, an elementary school, the King David Kosher Restaurant, a mikvah, a small yashiva headed by Rabbi Uri Gamson from Israel, an impressive library, a media center, social hall and a Judaica store. A soup kitchen provides free meals to elderly indigent Jews. Rabbi Teichtal last fall opened another Chabad Center in east Berlin using an available office building.

Badly damaged and desecrated synagogues like the Moorish-style domed Neue (New) Synagogue and its Centrum Judaicum museum and venue have been restored as much as possible and now reopened for Shabat services.  Its great sanctuary that once seated 3,200 worshipers, was destroyed but what had been one of the upper tiers where women were accommodated is now the main room for services conducted by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, one of only two female rabbis in Berlin. Before the advent of Nazism, Berlin boasted 34 synagogues.  Most were closed by the Nazis and either destroyed or badly damaged in the war.  But today nine including the impressive Rykestrasse Synagogue belong again to the Jewish community.

As with almost every Jewish institution in Berlin (and in other European cities, as a matter of fact), the Neue Synagogue is distinguished outside by no-nonsense barriers, usually concrete or massive steel stanchions.  Uniformed German police are also always present, often supplemented by young armed Israel guards in civilian dress, authorized for such duty by agreement with the German government.  Actual entry to major centers like this one is via a security screening area, not that different from those in airports. Concedes one Jewish resident, “We do have anti-Semitic graffiti and there are neo-Nazis here, too.”  But while the real threat from terrorists is quite low, it’s clear that the Germany government doesn’t want anything to happen again like the massacre of the Israelis during the Munich Olympic Games.

Upon visiting Berlin, many Jewish visitors who perhaps came reluctantly and were inclined to be critical of Germany, frequently express a change in attitude. One of these was Bernard Valier, a French-born Israeli whose father was deported from France and killed in Auschwitz. On a visit to Berlin a few years back he says, “I sensed a feeling of genuine remorse on the part of the German government.  Unlike the situation in some other countries in Europe, I felt in marking the Holocaust with the many memorials throughout Berlin that the authorities actually meant it.”

Given the disparate origins of so many new Berliners, it’s inevitable that organizations representing their cultural and political interests are in place.  Among these are the European Jewish Congress, the Central Committee of Jews in Germany, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Center.

Beyond the memorials and the synagogues, it’s not hard at all to spot example examples of lively rebirth of Jewish social, gastronomic and artistic life in Germany’s capital.

Just opened in February was a red brick building that was formerly the Jüdische Mädchenschule, the Jewish Girls’ School. A simple plaque near the main entrance recounts the horrible fate of the young women who once studied, laughed and played here and their teachers.  An adjoining open area was a collection point from which other Jews from the neighborhood were transported to camps to be murdered.

While the building’s name has been retained as a mark of respect, it now has been redeveloped by art dealer and entrepreneur Michael Fuchs at a cost of some $6.5 million to be a center for art and gastronomy. On the main floor is the Pauly-Saal, a fine dining restaurant and bar with seating outside in a garden area.

Down the hall Oskar Melzer and Paul Mogg run a lively New York style delicatessen that features what chef Joey Passarella, until recently of the Upper East Side, claims is the only home-made pastrami to be found in Berlin.  On his menu, too, matzoh ball soup, chicken liver and New York cheese cake. On the premises, too, is the Kosher Classroom, actually a small restaurant and catering service. All the upper floors are galleries whose space is given over to exhibitions by local and international artists and photographers.

After 60 years, live Jewish theater returned to Berlin in 2001 with the opening of the Bimah, Jewish Theater Berlin under its creative director, Israel-born Dan Lahav.. Presented now in its 250-seat theater on the smart Admiralspalast are cabaret acts and original plays, usually satire and comedy, mostly written by Lahav.  In the Bimah’s company is a cast of eight.  Among its recent productions were Shabat Shalom, A Friday Evening in a Jewish Family and Three Lusty Widows and a Dancing Rabbi.

Another quite lively example of the future face of today’s Jewish community in Berlin is the Jewish High School in Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. It reopened behind the usual security fences in 1993 as a co-ed private school offering classes 5th to 12th grade. Initially, it had just 27 students. Today the school has 430 students of whom 70% are Jewish.  Barbara Witting, principal of the Jewish High School, estimates that more than 80% of the school’s graduating seniors go on to university and, additionally, others take a year off before starting university to participate in humanitarian programs abroad.

To be found throughout the city today are specialty restaurants catering to Russian patrons while there are plenty of bars, cafes and clubs popular with the young Israelis. Many of them reside in the Neukoelln neighborhood, dubbed “Little Israel.” where you’ll find Keren’s Kitchen along with restaurants specializing in humus dishes and Palestinian fare. The Facebook page “Israelis In Berlin” is said to have some 3,000 friends.

Jews are well represented in Berlin’s entertainment industries, too, by film makers, artists, designers, stand-up comics , young rock performers like Sharon Levy, winner of “Voice of Germany,” local TV’s equivalent of “American Idol”, and a DJ called Meshugena.  To accommodate the increasing number of Jewish tourists coming from abroad is Milk&Honey Tours started nine years ago by German-born Noa Lerner. She has seen her business expand some 20 times and today has 20 guides in Berlin alone.

After appropriate religious services, such traditional family events as weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs are celebrated in top Berlin hotels.  The InterContinental Berlin is particularly popular because its main ballroom can accommodate up to 1,200 although 250 to 400 is a more typical guest number for parties in the Pavilion Room.  The hotel hosts an average of two such Jewish events a month.

In Berlin’s booming business world, Jews are certainly prominent.  Among the most high profile of these is Michael Zehden. Among other positions, he’s CEO of Albeck & Zehden, a hotel management and consultancy firm that has a portfolio of 12 hotels, four in Berlin. Zehden was a co-founder of Berlin Tourism Marketing, is a board member of the Berlin Airport and personally and through his firm supports a variety of charities.

Charlotte Knobloch, former head of the Council of Jews in Germany, is quoted this way.  “The Jewish community has arrived.  Germany is once again a home for Jews.”

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