January 20, 2019

Berlin’s Orthodox Jews: No Christmas Envy

In my article entitled “Trees and Roots” in The Jerusalem Post’s weekend magazine, I discovered how some Israelis adapt to – and adopt – some Christmas traditions to Hannukah in Berlin, including topping a “Hannukah” tree with a Star of David. I also caught up with Rabbi Joshua Spinner, executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, to find out how the Orthodox Jewish community in Berlin copes with the prevalence of Christmas and Christmas markets.

“I have no sense in my family or community of any kind of Christmas envy,” said Spinner, who lives with his wife Joelle and three daughters in Berlin. Spinner was behind the re-incorporation of the revived Kehillat Adass Jisroel community in Berlin, named after the pre-war Orthodox community there, and which today consists of 75 active member Orthodox families, the subject of my Jewish Journal article, “Modern Orthodox Jewish Life Blossons in Berlin,”

The Lauder Foundation has been an influential force in the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community in Germany. It was activated in Germany when the German government welcomed Russian Jews after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Today, the majority of the 100,000 affiliated Jews hail from this community, a fraction of whom are Orthodox.

This year in cities across Europe and Germany, Chabad, as usual, will light a public Hannukiah amidst the colorful Chrstmas lights. In Berlin, they’ll raise the shamash at tourist landmarks, Alexanderplatz (near the famour TV Tower) and Brandenburg Gate. For the small Orthodox German-Jewish community, Hannukah is celebrated without Christmas competition.

For Spinner, the Christmas lights and markets pose no threat to the sanctity of a traditional Hannukah. In fact, he took his family for rides at the less religiously oriented, less food-driven markets, which are more like mini-amusement parks.

“I think it’s not difficult, especially because of the commercialization of Christmas, to differentiate the presence of a lot of these things from the supposed theology of it,” Spinner said.

For the Russian-rooted Jewish community, New Year’s has taken on more significance than Christmas. In the former Soviet Union, the Russian New Year, “Novyi God”, supplanted Christmas as the major winter Holiday (with Santa Claus re-imagined as “Grandfather Frost”). Many Russian Jews continue to celebrate this secular holiday, so Jewish schools must ensure school programs are completed by then. But Spinner sees no reason to “Hannuka-ize” any Christmas or New Year’s tradition.

“Hannukah for us is really powerful and exciting and moving. We celebrate that fully and positively, and the kids are conscious of the fact that they live in a non-Jewish society, and that non-Jews have their own holidays. And that’s fine.”