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Seder in Germany

April 28, 2010 – 12:08 am3 Comments

Poster from an exhibition on Jewish food at the Jewish Museum of Berlin

By Alex Kats

For me, Pesach has always been the most unifying of holidays. Even in my family where Jewish practice was rare, we always had Matzah on the table, kneidlach in the chicken soup and a Seder of sorts led by my grandmother, and as I got older, by me. In recent years, I have experienced Pesach and many other Jewish festivals across Australia and around the world, but my love for Pesach in particular has never been extinguished.

I remember my grandmother telling us that as a child in Poland and later Russia, she and her family had to struggle to access even a single piece of Matzah, and most of the people in her community barely even remembered what Matzah was supposed to represent. Despite that, having it on Pesach was important to them. Her passion and dedication inspired me to learn more about the significance of Pesach in particular, and the Jewish story in general. Then, in 2005, I had the enormous privilege and honour of going to Belarus to conduct Seders for a small Jewish community 200 km east of Minsk, together with three Americans under the auspices of the New York based Lauder Foundation.

This year, after hearing that the Foundation was now concentrating much of their efforts on bringing Judaism to the many Russian and other Jews that are now in Germany, I again had the privilege and opportunity of spending Pesach in a foreign but fascinating land.

The main purpose of my visit to the country was to conduct Seder. For the few days around the start of the Festival I stayed in a small town on the Danish border called Flensburg. The town has about 85,000 residents and is an incredibly picturesque port and former fishing village with multi-coloured façades on all the buildings, cobble-stoned streets, many large converted mansions and awe-inspiring harbour views. Peppered in amongst the beauty of the town are 70-85 Jewish members. The exact number depends on how a Jew is defined, but in a town of this size, every active member is a valuable, accepted and cherished contributor.

The Jewish community, though extremely small, is rather active. With funding from the Lauder Foundation, the government and other benefactors, they have a well resourced and sizable Jewish centre relative to the size of the community. Amongst the resources are many books on Jewish topics in German and Russian, as well as some in English and Hebrew. They recently received a donation of a Torah scroll along with translated and transliterated prayers books. They also have numerous prayer shawls (Talit) and many other tangible manifestations of Jewish practices and customs.

The one thing they constantly lack, however, is the know-how to use the resources and engage in Jewish life. As a result, for the last five years or so, people like myself (though mainly from America) have visited their community for Pesach and sometimes for other festivals in order to lead Seders and other services. Over the course of two evenings, we met every member of the community, including some active non-Jewish partners. For the first Seder alone, more than 60 people turned up – probably a per capita record – including the local Parish priest, who is always an honoured guest at any Jewish activity in Flensburg. Later we learned that at least a few of the Jewish people had never been to a Seder previously, and some had not been to one for many years. It was Pesach that brought out its unifying power, although if we visitors had not been there, they might not have had a Seder at all.

On the same trip, amongst other places, I also had the opportunity to visit Leipzig, which has the greatest concentration of young Jews in all of Germany, most of them from the former Soviet Union. For that reason and because of its proximity to Berlin, for the last five years Leipzig has been home to the country’s main Jewish youth centre. Unlike in Flensburg, there are people there who know how to lead Jewish services, including a Rabbi and some local Yeshiva students, but they too feel greatly benefited when they are visited by American or other Jews.

For our small group, Leipzig was the dessert at the end of our feast of Jewish Germany, but it also crystallised what we had been seeing throughout our twelve days in the country: one of the greatest tragedies in human and Jewish history may have been borne out of Germany, but 50 or 60 years later many Jews from the former Soviet Union have made Germany their new home. Although the migration has now peaked, Germany still has the fastest growing Jewish community in the world, and many of the Jews who migrate live in some of the smallest cities in the country. Despite that and despite their limited or completely non-existent Jewish knowledge, their thirst for Judaism is often much stronger than that of many of us who have grown up in more established Jewish communities. We also met some German converts to Judaism who converted after being inspired by the new migrants in their towns.

The communities we saw share a desire to grow, to learn more about Judaism, and to step out of the shadows of their Eastern European Jewish quagmire. Young and old alike are taking up the opportunity to learn about a heritage that was almost ripped away from them. It was glorious and inspirational to be part of it. It was also very interesting to see the efficiency, dedication and care that the communities showed to us and each other.

The Jewish leaders of Germany know that in a few generations the Jewish community will either have experienced a renaissance, or disappeared, with the immigrants who came having lost all semblance of their sometimes tenuous Jewish roots. I know that I want it to be the former, and I hope that I have been able to contribute in my small way to ensure that Germany can have a significant Jewish presence once again, and Pesach and other festivals can continue to unite the Jewish world for many years to come.

Alex Kats works as a Project Manager in Melbourne and is one of the only Australians ever to run a communal seder in Germany. He has also been involved in numerous other Jewish communal activities.

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  • frosh says:

    Hi Alex,

    It sounds like a fascinating trip.

    I’m curious as to whether there was any discussion amongst these immgrants as to whether they considered making aliyah instead of moving to Germany, and what factors effected their consideration.

  • Alex says:

    Hey Frosh,
    The truth is that Aliyah was not mentioned once. Some said that Israel is important to them, but for the most part, it wasn’t even mentioned, though a few have been to Israel.. certainly not the majority of the ones we spoke to.
    Interestingly, a couple of people said (though it might just be these two and not everyone) that they had the option of moving to America or elsewhere but specifically chose Germany. In one case it is because Germany gives Jewish immigrants better rights than Israel, but in another case it is because she wanted to come to Germany and bring Judaism to the country. She was actually quite learned in Ukraine and wanted to continue that learning in a place that once was the capital of the Jewish world, as she said. Plus, many of them wanted to stay in Europe close to other family so a country that was willing to accept them was best for them. Despite all that, very few people of the ones we met said that they feel German or identify in a patriotic sense with Germany. They are proud Europeans but not proud Germans.. interesting!

  • paroggan says:

    Historically, the reason for the lack of aliyah has been that Germany legally regarded Jews, particularly Jews from the former Soviet Union, as refugees. This made it easier for said Jews,  to emigrate to Germany than anywhere else in Europe. Since many of these people weren’t ideologically engaged with the concept of Zionism, nor were many of them necessarily interested (or educated) in religious practice, they chose to come to Germany — a new life in Europe affords a much broader opportunity than a new life in Israel. Fiscally speaking, anyhow.
    This legislation has been rather controversial, not least because it has had a direct effect on ex-Soviet Aliyah numbers, but primarily because it inadvertently went some way to undermine the uniqueness of the Jewish homeland and right of return to Israel — there was an effective ‘right of return’ to Germany.
    A few years back, under some pressure from the Israeli government, which, in my opinion, got its knickers in a knot, looked a gift horse in the mouth, and proceeded to cut its nose off to spite its face (three things it’s good at), the German government changed this refugee status (http://www.ejpress.org/article/in_depth/1969).
    As far as I’m concerned, two places that readily accept Jews as Jews is better than one. Sure, there are prejudices and pressures to be dealt with in Germany, and there’s no getting away from the fact that it was the seat of the Holocaust and continues to host a loud Nazi element. But what’s the big deal?
    I’m sure the 200,000 ex-Soviet Jews in Germany; the young, vibrant community in Leipzig; and Alex’s enthusiastic Seder party are thoroughly grateful to be where they are.

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