Marilyn Forman Chandler Reflects on the Study Mission to Berlin

Berlin. It’s a city you really don’t want to go to. And it is a city worth going to. There are so many layers upon layers of feelings, of history and of memory, especially for Jews.  Our Federation has, and always will, value missions so deeply because we believe there is nothing more powerful than seeing, firsthand, our dollars at work. Our Federation leadership believe that learning on-site is the best way to understand a place and the history of that place.  Our missions program has brought almost 1500 individuals to Israel and to places like Berlin which we wouldn’t necessarily travel to on our own for a vacation.  33 of us travelled on the Federation Study Mission to Berlin just last month to better understand the history, to learn about the contemporary Jewish community living in Berlin today and our Federation’s role in shaping this community.

There was memory below our feet, above our heads and, frankly, all around us.  Memories of the individuals who once lived in Berlin before the war could be found on "stolpersteine," or stumbling blocks, beneath our feet. Envisioned by German artist Gunter Demnig, are small brass blocks inserted into the cobblestones or pavements memorializing by name, date of birth, date of deportation and date of death and location, those Nazi victims who had previously lived at the locations as free people.


Today, the over 5000 stones in Berlin and tens of thousands more throughout Germany and in 20 European countries, can be understood to represent grave stones for those who had no proper burial.  The artist cites the Talmud saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.”  Walking along the large boulevards and parks, I also found street names like Rosenblatt, Goldschmitt and others in addition to streets in memory of David Ben Gurion, Yitzchak Rabin and Moses Mendelssohn. It was eerily like being in Israel. 


We viewed many other memorials to the murdered Jews of Europe, to the Sinti and Roma Victims, remembering the 1933 Nazi Book Burning, the Berlin Wall Memorial and East Side Gallery of artist images related to freedom, the Block of Women Memorial dedicated to Non-Jewish women who risked their lives to protest the detainment of their Jewish husbands by the SS and Gestapo, a Workshop for the Blind which served as a haven for Jews during the Holocaust, the Topography of Terror which documents in great detail, the central institutions of Nazi persecution and terror, the Places of Remembrance Memorial which depicts art images representing anti-Jewish racist Nazi laws passed which made Jews the “other” and the Sculpture dedicated to the 1938-1945 Kindertransport “Trains to Life; Trains to Death”. 

I was particularly struck by the intentionality and centrality of these memorials, prominently placed by the German people in the heart of the city near the Brandenberger Gate and the U.S. Embassy, in the middle of public squares used for the state opera and universities and major denominational churches. Never Forget and take responsibility is a mantra of all Berliners as they walk or bicycle or bus to work.  









We ended the week with a memorial service at Gleis 17, which is located at what was the main train deportation center for Berlin Jews showing the exact number of Jews, the exact date and whether they were heading toward Treblinka, Aushwitz, Terezin or other concentration camps. The Nazis kept perfect records.

Trains only went one way into a very dark void.





How utterly incomprehensible was it then to learn that today, Jews have been relocated to German communities to “prevent ghettos” and to re-populate the Jewish communities there in precisely the same numbers of those who had been killed by the Nazis. They were brought in to fill the gaps without freedom of choice

 about where to resettle. Of course I am looking at this through American rose-colored glasses where we have had freedom of choice, of opportunity, of Ellis island and the Statue of Liberty and if Emma Lazarus. I still can’t grasp this concept.

It is so complicated. Twelve ugly dark depressing harrowing years preceded by a very long German history which included Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment, later followed by the rebuilding of a contemporary city with cranes everywhere and huge growth in population. 

Who is moving here in terms of the Jewish community? Only a very very small minority of Jewish returnees post WWII miraculously survived the extermination camps or came out of hiding and returned. Russian-speaking Jews who came as refugees to Israel and to the U.S. also were given significant Germany government monetary incentives after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s.  Today they constitute the majority of Jews, perhaps as many as 95%, who came to Germany post WWII; 200,000 strong today, though the numbers are estimates because many do not identify or pay the “Jewish tax”. This has been very controversial for Israeli and American Jews.  We marched for their freedom; we paired Refuseniks for Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, brought Jewish books to them in Russia. We enacted legislation about them in the halls of our U.S. Congress.

Today, Jews in Germany represent the third largest and fastest growing Jewish community in Europe. This has been an enormous challenge for leadership and organizations for the relatively tiny 20,000 Jewish minority in Germany in the early 1990’s who resettled a huge majority of 100,000.  Just to note that 90% of Jews now living in Berlin have come within the past 20 years. Two hundred Jewish organizations today serve the Berlin Jewish community with an Orthodox Central Council of Jews as well as the more pluralistic Council of Progressive Jews. Young Jews are staying in Berlin with many start-ups, university students aged 20-40, grass roots and NGO’s. “Jews are here to stay; they are not sitting on packed suitcases”

Young Hebrew-speaking secular Jews, many of them artists and musicians, from Israel seeking economic opportunity comprise the next largest Jewish population although most of them are not “registered” on the official lists of the organized Jewish community.  German reparations to Israel following the war gave German-built buses, taxis and more to the Israelis. I wonder what Israeli grandparents think about this, especially those who struggled to leave Germany to seek freedom in then Palestine? Interestingly, most Jews living in Germany have been to Israel more than once.  The “Hummusexual” t-shirt wearing Israeli-born Jewish co-owner of Kanaan, a middle eastern restaurant, opened his doors and his heart to us to share his own personal story. His co-owner is an Israeli Palestinian and they employ refugees and members of the LGBTQ community. It was nice to walk away with a gift from them of their freshly made halava that we all took home for Rosh Hashana!

Many leaders of the Jewish community converted to Judaism; some of whom had one Jewish grandparent.  Some, like Orthodox-trained Rabbis Rebecca Blady and Jeremy Borovitz who run Base Berlin Hillel Germany, are American transplants who provide a home to “activate and create Jewish memories” for 18-40 year olds who may not have any direct familial link.  In many ways, they told us, German Jewry is way ahead of other Jewish communities in interfaith relations, Jewish identity-building and in being a part of Germany society.

While all of us struggled with being in Berlin, seeing older Germans and wondering where they were during the Shoah, it was helpful to hear out loud from Alex Green, our Jewish guide, that barely anyone that we encountered in person, on the grand boulevard UnterdenLinden, in the KaDeWe Mall or in the palatial Koncerthaus, would have been alive during the Shoah. 




There are major efforts underway to make the synagogue a center of Jewish life. The Fraenkelufer Synagogue sits in the Kreuzberg section of Berlin in a Turkish and Muslim neighborhood across from a beautiful canal with swans floating past.  Once one of the grandest synagogues in Berlin, it is less than half its original size. In 1938, it was almost entirely destroyed by fire during Kristallnacht and later by a bomb; it was also the site of attacks in the early 2000’s.  I attended Shabbat morning services there which have been held in the chapel for many years. A postcard photograph shows a ghost-like depiction of the once-standing enormous sanctuary which dwarfs the large chapel. A social democratic Palestinian-born German politician and the leader of Berlin’s Jewish community have come together to battle anti-Semitism and attacks on Muslims, and rebuild the once thriving synagogue.  A young couple is raising funds from the city, foundations and private donors and is deeply committed to breathing life back into the congregation.


The German government is providing significant funds – millions of Euros - to strengthen Jewish life using grants and public monies in order to enhance the visibility of the Jewish community. Germany also faces challenges much like we do here in the U.S. with the growth of the extreme right, rising Anti-Semitism especially from new refugee populations and from the extreme left, and with it all, the need for increased security at Jewish institutions. This past month, there was an attack outside the magnificently gold-domed Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue where we had all davened Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night. Above its original ark housing the Torahs, it was written: “Open the Gates. Let the righteous nation enter, a nation that keeps faith.”  It was only because of the efforts of one lone non-Jewish Berlin police officer, Wilhelm Krutzfeld, that the synagogue is still standing.  On Yom Kippur, at another at a synagogue in Halle, just south of Berlin, there was another attack. Security was very visible outside all of the synagogues and stopped the intruders although innocent bystanders were wounded and killed.

The modernistic German Bundestag, Parliament bridging East-West.

We also spent significant time studying and understanding the Berlin Wall – its size, how it divided the German population, the various sectors, Checkpoint Charlie, Capitalism vs. Communism, and the JFK visit in 1963. One thing that stands out was found outside a church, where we came across a plaque dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. who had visited in 1964. It was there that he gave a rousing speech in which he said: “G-d’s children live on both sides of the wall. Let My People Go.” We know this from our bible stories and from our chants to bring Jews from the FSU to freedom.  Here, he was referring to the East/West divide in Berlin. Ronald Reagan called upon Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall on Reagan’s second visit to Berlin in 1987. The wall came down, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9, 1989. And it wasn’t until then that the German government truly took responsibility and acknowledged its role in the Nazi past and in promoting anti-Semitism.








Street Scenes. Really?

Our overseas partners, JDC, JAFI, and Hillel International are on the ground doing amazing work in Berlin and throughout Germany today.  We, you and I, are partners in rebuilding Germany’s pluralistic Jewish communal life.  JDC, JAFI and Hillel define “who is a Jew” using the Israeli Law of Return definition – based upon Hitler’s 1935 definition - stating that a Jew was a person with at least one Jewish grandparent.  Whether it is through providing clothing, medical care or food, Jewish camp, leadership development opportunities, Hebrew language courses, Israel experiences, Jewish ritual life experiences, or three Reform/Masorti/Orthodox Rabbinic Seminaries and two Beit Dins for Orthodox/General conversions, Jewish Berlin is undergoing another renaissance today.  Israeli organizations like IsraAID are also involved in supporting refugees in their integration into German society.  I believe this can best be explained through some of the stories of the individuals with whom we met and understanding some of the Jewish institutions we visited.

The richness of Jewish life can be seen on posters throughout the city.


Notes from Berlin Mission, Last night of the Mission, September 22, 2019

Marilyn Forman Chandler

Dedicated to Jack Hoffman, z”l, (Kinder Transport) Paul Gould, z”l, (Kristallnacht, French Foreign Legion), and Alice and Burt Roemer, z”l (Burt came in his 20s/30s to Greensboro and served in the US Army in Germany).

                In a way, we’ve come full circle – sitting in this circle.

                The first evening, we heard from Anna of the JDC who shared her story of leaving Yugoslavia for Serbia, of her own resilience, in losing her parents at a young age and re-discovering her Judaism through the JDC’s Camp Szarvas. She now raises her Jewish children here, in the third largest Jewish community in Europe.

                At Shabbat services, we completed the circle with Rabbi Ederberg, who had just attended a ceremony to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the end to the war in Bosnia/Serbia.

                In between, we heard from Lana who taught us that we can’t escape our memories of what once happened to our people here and of the contract Germany signed with the FSU to bring Soviet Jews to Germany to fill in the gaps in cities where Jews had once lived with NO freedom of choice about where they could resettle. Here, they are “Russians,” whereas in the Soviet Union, they had been called Jews.

                Alex shared his own personal story as the only Jew in a school of 1,200 students where he felt like a dinosaur. When he went to Hebrew University to study, he discovered he was called the German, not the Jew. He asked us to understand that there was a Jewish community for 2,000 years prior and one that is thriving once again today – preceding and following the 12 years in between.

                We stood at the Brandenburger Gate in no man’s land between east and west where we heard the story of Max Lieberman and his wife Martha, whose house today sits as a place of silent mediation. Just across the street, in the heart of the city, we contemplated the meaning of the Holocaust Memorial. How did it make us feel? Trapped? No way out? Light at the end of the tunnel? We were standing at the “crime scene,” so to speak. Was it okay for the teens to be playing hide and seek? Or not? Meaning and memory.

                MP Gröhler shared the vision of the German government in supporting Jewish life and Jewish communal institutions throughout Germany today: using public money to bring the Jewish community out into the public’s eye to make it visible. He talked to us about freedom of expression versus hate speech and laws condemning anti-Semitism and B.D.S.

                Hans Thomas Kessler, a Christian Democrat who had studied with his own professor Madeline Albright, represents ELNet, and organization promoting European ties to Israel and spreading information about Israel as an innovate/start-up democratic nation while combating anti-Semitism.

                At the Boros Collection, a former bunker, we learned the term “digital detox” before proceeding on how art – unique and contemporary as it was – tells a story. Remember the piece that spoke of Time – how we are always on a journey – no time. Going somewhere or nowhere?

                Rabbi Daniel Fabian of the Lauder School told us that “Jews are her to stay and aren’t sitting on packed suitcases.” He shared challenges of assimilation and demographics: how does a community of 20,000 integrate and provide leadership for another 100,000?

                Nastia of JAFI – the Jewish Agency said to us, “If we are staying away from being a Jew and an active member of the Jewish community, then Hitler won.” Young people active in all kinds of organizations showed us that the Holocaust experience should not be the only things that defines Jews. We are not dead Jews – we are very much alive. Remember them – Nick, Denis, Monya, Valentine (shofar blower out the window; his face was on an exhibit at the Jewish museum), Misha, Lars – shared their stories. They will be the Jewish communal leaders of tomorrow. Lars heads up a 25,000 member Jewish Student Union of Germany which fosters building political skills on campus.

                We started the morning on Thursday singing with the self-proclaimed “disruptors” Rabbis Rebecca and Jeremy as they replicated Base Hillel for us., and taught that a home can replicate, reactivate tradition, and teach memories even without direct familial links. Invite interfaith families into our homes, again and again. The Berlin Jewish Community roundtable meets monthly to calendar and plan – much like our own – and check out! They worry most about who will come after them.

                At the Oranienberger Strasse Synagogue, we saw fragments from above the once-existing ark which read: “Open the gates, let the righteous nation enter, a nation that keeps faith.”

                Moses Mendelssohn pioneered the notion that Jews could be full Jews and fully participate in German life. “Be a Jew in your tents and a citizen in your community.” Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jones pioneered the idea that women could obtain status as a rabbi, though they are not fully accepted by their male colleagues.

                Sue shared her father’s story of resilience at the stumbling stones. We don’t see them; we walk on them, we polish them. Jews lived here once. These are their graves – they have no other.

                Non-Jews did stand up – people like Otto Weidt and Wilhelm Krutzfeld. Small acts of courage and defiance. They took risks to make a difference.

                Gal, Sarah, and Nechama’s work with refugees on behalf of IsraAID bring individuals like Sanaria to Germany. Her heart is in Kurdistan, where she left to keep her children safe here in Germany.

                Dr. Sandra of the Conservative Seminary helped us see clear – the conversion process here, the Beit Din, about religious life and rabbis and seminaries. How do we make the synagogue once again the center of Jewish life? And what does it mean to be Jewish? She told us, “I was the rabbi who bought you that ice cream at JDC’s Camp Szarvas!” “Shabbat, keeping kosher, Jewish holidays – I have chosen for my children that these will be important for them.”

                The Israelis – “musicians, artists, secular searching for opportunity” like Oz Ben David at Kanaan.

                The Russians – “Zionists to Israel to economics to USA to neither to Germany as refugees.”

Most religious leaders today in Germany are converts! Jews by choice. All in this, the fastest growing Jewish community in the world today.

                What does it mean to be a Jew? Who determines this? Not the German government. Halakha and the Jewish community? Open door or a closed one? Create a Jewish space – like the gymnasium.

                East. West. North. South.

                The Berlin Wall came down on November 9th. Isn’t it a coincidence that it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht? (And Alex’s birthday).

Martin Luther King came all the way here to teach that “G-d’s children live on both sides of the wall. Let my people go.” Eerily familiar to us as Jews and us as Americans.

JFK, Reagan, Gorbeychev all came to Berlin.

                Memory is all around us here.

  • In neighborhoods on artists’ renditions above our heads
  • On the cobblestone streets below us
  • In synagogues partially standing and in those rebuilt
  • At the train tracks
  • Even in the climate protests in the streets of Berlin

As Elie Wiesel taught us: Never be silent or indifferent.

Let us return home and remember that each one of us can make a difference in the world.

Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol Yisrael. V'imru: amen.