Rabbinical Student Meets Berlin Masorti Community

During Rosh Chodesh Nissan (March 15-18) I had the pleasure of visiting the Masorti/Marom communities in Berlin. As a second year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the opportunity to meet and interact with European Conservative/Masorti Jews was invaluable and helped increase my appreciation for the work being done by the movement worldwide.

I was given this opportunity thanks to Masorti Olami, Marom Olami and my participation in the Gladstein Fellowship at the Jewish Theological Seminary in addition to the World Zionist Organization, an organization I worked with in college as a Hagshama Campus Intern. The experiences I had while in Berlin reflected this partnership, as I attended—and led—programming in Hebrew, English and German. Okay, so I didn’t lead any programming in German, but maybe next time.

I started my time in Berlin with a trip to the Masorti Kindergarten, a fantastic and unique pre-school (as we would call it in America) where instruction happens in German, English and Hebrew. I was lucky enough to attend a shabbat ceremony, where children sang, laughed, lit candles, drank grape juice, and listened intently to stories about shabbat and Passover. Playing with these young Jewish children was delightful as they taught me words in German and begged me to read them books in English. The Kindergarten was the perfect place to launch my trip as the joy I saw there reverberated throughout the community I would have the honor of meeting during shabbat.

After some time in the National German History Museum, I made my way to the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue for Erev Shabbat services. When I arrived I met Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, who throughout shabbat showcased what a terrific community leader looks like. R’ Gesa effortlessly transitioned between German, Hebrew and English as she gave a tour to a youth group from a local Protestant church, welcomed me to the shul and then led the community in Kabbalat Shabbat. When it was my turn to lead Ma’ariv, the evening prayer, I was admittedly taken in by the powerful experience of leading a Jewish community in prayer in the heart of Berlin. As an American Jew, my relationship to Germany had up to that point been primarily through Holocaust movies and stories. Seeing the wonderful community and being a part of the new Jewish present in the city was an incredibly moving moment.

Once services concluded, we made our way to Rabbi Gesa’s house, where she and her family hosted myself along with a number of active Marom members for dinner. The conversation ranged widely, from discussion of current political climates in Germany, America and Israel to a lesson on solving Rubiks’ Cubes from one of R’ Gesa’s daughters. It was fascinating to hear how the challenges of Jewish communal life are both similar—how do we get young adults to our programing?—and different—how do we re-learn what it means to be a German Jewish community in a post-Holocaust post-Soviet world?—to the problems faced in the United States. It was also interesting coming from Israel to hear how the country—and its actions—are perceived by young Israelis, Germans, and other Europeans who are Jewishily active in Berlin.

On Shabbat, the services, which I again had the honor of helping to lead, included plenty of singing and a rousing Hallel as the community was joined by a conversion seminar consisting of former Soviet Union residents and a young adults leadership group from the Union for Reform Judaism. The word that continues to come to mind as I reflect back on the trip is “joy,” as I was continuously impressed with the enthusiasm displayed by the community.

After services and a delicious kiddish lunch, I led a shiur in honor of Shabbat HaChodesh, the first shabbat of the month of Nissan. We studied midrashim and commentaries on the verse in the Torah that establishes the new moon as the symbol for the Jewish Calendar. We learned a midrash from Shemot Rabbah that expounds upon the verse, learning from it that the first new month was declared—as the Israelites were preparing to leave Egypt—with God serving as a witness alongside Moshe and Aharon. Perhaps this is why R. Acha b. Chanina said in the name of R. Jochanan: “He who pronounces the benediction of the new moon in its due time, is considered as if he were greeting the Divine presence.” We discussed how this call to cooperation with the Divine is essential to the Jewish concept of time and ritual.

Following my shiur I walked with the Marom community to the home of Andres Bruckner, a rabbinical student at Zacharias Frankel College. The walk was long and quite cold, but offered a tremendous opportunity to see more of the city and get to know the young adults who were building Conservative/Masorti Jewish life in Berlin. We had a lovely seudah shlishit at Andres’ apartment and then after havdallah went out together to a local bar.

My final day in Berlin was devoted to learning more about the city’s complicated history post-World War II. I visited Checkpoint Charlie and the museum dedicated to those who escaped—in all manner of creative ways—from East to West Berlin. I went to the Brandenburg Gate and walked the outdoor museum on Bernauer Strasse that commemorates the wall and its effects on the population through video, stories, sound, art and the restoration of sections of the wall. The irony was not lost on me as I walked down the alley that I had left one city once divided by a wall (Jerusalem) to learn about another (Berlin).

I am so thankful for the opportunity to have taken this trip and to have learned so much from Rabbi Gesa and the Jewish community of Berlin. I hope to continue my relationship with the Berliner Jewish community and I will be sure in future travels to connect with Masorti congregations wherever I can find them.

Ben Freed

Rabbinical Student & Gladstein Fellow

JTS