Modern Orthodox Jewish life blossoms in Berlin

A few years ago, Yael Merlini wasn’t sure she and her family could stay in Germany. Her children, ages 7, 11 and 15, were the only Jews in their school in Giessen, a town near Frankfurt.
September 29, 2016

A few years ago, Yael Merlini wasn’t sure she and her family could stay in Germany. Her children, ages 7, 11 and 15, were the only Jews in their school in Giessen, a town near Frankfurt. The Jewish population numbered fewer than 400, mostly elderly Russian Jews. She also experienced anti-Semitism in the form of social slights from colleagues she described as “liberal” Germans.

“Our first thought was to go to Israel,” the Italian-born Merlini said in an interview in Hebrew over the phone in Berlin, where she and her family settled a few weeks ago. “But in Israel, with our professions, it’s very hard.” Her German-born husband is an academic; originally from Florence, she’s a teacher. Both had lived in Israel for 10 years, where they met, and together converted to Judaism.

I first met Merlini, visibly Orthodox with her tichl (religious headscarf), at the Orthodox Shabbat minyan held in the historic Rykestrasse Synagogue in the upwardly mobile neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, in former East Berlin. Having survived Kristallnacht, the synagogue today serves as the campus for the Lauder Beth-Zion Elementary School, while its ornate main sanctuary offers a more Reform Shabbat service, equipped with a microphone.

At the morning kiddush, as children played and congregants vied for the meat cholent, Merlini effused how members of Kehillat Adass Jisroel (KAJ) community cooked kosher meals for them upon their arrival, helped them find an apartment and came to their rescue when their car broke down. KAJ was officially incorporated in 2013, named for the Orthodox community that once thrived in Berlin. Today’s KAJ has 75 member families.

Fifteen years ago, Orthodox Jewry in Berlin consisted of only a handful of families, situated mostly in west Berlin. At that time, philanthropist and cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder recruited American-born Rabbi Joshua Spinner, today the executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, to revive Jewish life in Germany.

 Orthodox Jewry in Berlin, seen here at a wedding, consisted of only a handful of families 15 years ago. Today it is experiencing a renaissance.

“The first thing we did was open a yeshiva, which was very important because it all starts with learning — learning and personal growth,” Spinner said during an interview at a cafe near the Brunnenstrasse shul. Inside the synagogue’s main hall, tiles in the ceiling are still visible from its days as Synagogue Beth Zion serving Mitte’s Orthodox community. During Soviet rule, the building served as headquarters of an East German cosmetics factory, an auspicious sign. Today, the expanded, multilevel complex houses KAJ’s administrative offices, the Lauder Nitzan Kindergarten, the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, and a slew of Jewish outreach organizations, most of which have been enabled by the Lauder Foundation.

For the foundation, rebuilding German Jewish life was not an act of defiance against Nazi Germany or an act of nostalgia for the illustrious Jewish community that once was. “It’s entirely idealistic, and the ideal is that every Jew, wherever they live, should have the possibility of living as a Torah Jew if they so choose. Period,” Spinner said. “Whatever is necessary to make that happen should be done. No Jews in Germany, I could leave tomorrow.”

The impetus for the Lauder initiative was Germany’s decision to welcome Soviet Jewry after the fall of the Iron Curtain, part of its attempt to repopulate the country with members of the faith it had decimated. Today, the official government count includes more than 100,000 Russian Jews, only a fraction of whom are actively affiliated in Jewish, let alone Orthodox, communal life.

KAJ grew along with Spinner’s own family. Spinner’s first daughter with his Swiss-born wife, Joelle (whose brother and extended family live in Los Angeles), was the first in the family to attend the Lauder preschool, which opened with 11 children but now boasts 95 and a waiting list.

During the interview, Spinner took off his hat, which concealed his black velvet kippah. The longstanding community advisory has been not wearing kippahs in public, but in cosmopolitan Mitte, he said he felt at ease. KAJ would rather not risk verbal or physical attacks in other neighborhoods, such as Wedding, a few blocks down, a stronghold of Turkish immigrants where some member families live because its housing is more affordable. Spinner has accepted this European mode of caution, since living Torah-observance is much more important to the community than parading it.

“This is part of the Torah-value orientation,” he said. “For us, halachah governs what’s important. So I won’t go bareheaded on the street, because it’s unhalachic to do so.”

Doron Rubin, one of the community’s founders, similarly took off his beret at Café Einstein, near the tourist-heavy Brandenburg Gate. He said some considered loosening the advisory until last year’s major influx of Muslim asylum seekers prompted a “wait and see” approach. German politicians, he said, expressed surprise at the vulnerability Jews feel in displaying their Jewishness publicly, an unfortunate damper amid the community’s progress. 

“If you’re thinking strategically into the future, then obviously it’s a problem,” he said, adding that Germany is among the safer countries for Jews in Europe.

Rubin fits another target demographic of KAJ. He was born in Germany to an Israeli and German-Jewish mother; trips to Israel led him toward Jewish observance. When he and his wife returned to Berlin in 2011, he realized he must take active part in building the community he sought.

At the cafe, Rubin was joined by Anna Segal, a Jewish educator and political assistant for the community, sporting a dirty-blond sheitel (wig) not recognizable as such to the average German. Segal is a community success story, having moved with her family at age 12 from St. Petersburg, Russia, to a small German town. Educated toward observance through Lauder programs, she eventually settled with her husband in Leipzig, where fulfilling Jewish community life eluded her. They moved to Berlin two years ago.

Grateful for the opportunities her adopted country and KAJ have given her, Segal believes the community serves as an important educational tool.

“I’m interested in showing German society that there is Jewish life, and not just Jewish history in Germany,” she said. “There is a fascination with dead Jews in Germany.” 

Having lost family to the Holocaust, Rubin sees the revival of KAJ as a historical correction, but life in Berlin is not driven or constantly escorted by the memory of German atrocities. As families prepare for a bar or bar mitzvah celebration, or for a Shabbos kallah or aufruf, or, these days, Rosh Hashanah meals, their pressing concern is for the present and future generations.

“We are a pretty young community and we’re the third generation, and our children are the fourth generation, so while it’s a very important part of our community and ourselves and history, I think most of us are focused on the fourth generation and making them live here in the positive, Jewish way,” Rubin said. “That’s the best way of dealing with the Holocaust.”

Orthodox life in Berlin is not without challenges. No strictly kosher restaurants exist near the communal institutions, and the lack of an eruv (a makeshift city enclosure that works around the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat) means women must generally stay home with children on Shabbat. In contrast to cities such as Los Angeles or New York, Spinner calls Berlin Orthodox life “mesiras nefesh” — sacrifice.

“We do it because it really matters,” he said.

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