Jan 11, 2004 — Like many Jews, I was very reluctant to visit Germany and hesitated when asked by Rabbi Ari Rockoff to participate in a visit by a group of YU students. Yet despite the conflicted emotions, there was an element that added a special dimension to this journey.
Unlike most Jews who fled Germany as quickly as they could after the Shoah, my grandparents, Yitzhak (Armin) and Magda Rosenthal, resettled in Munich for a brief period. What they faced in addition to the loss of loved ones, was the total destruction of Jewish life.
My grandparents were among the founders of the rebuilding of the Munich Jewish community. Immediately upon his return, my grandfather established a Jewish day school and he and my grandmother became active in restoring institutions necessary to serve the Jewish community, particularly the synagogue.
This past Shabbat we had the privilege of attending services at the Jewish community center led by YU alumnus, Rabbi Steven Langnas, ’78Y,B, R. It was a zechut (honor) to read maftir in the same spot where my grandfather served as gabai (sexton) for many years. Before and after the services I had discussion with congregants who knew my grandparents. I also had the opportunity to speak with Frau Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Munich Jewish community, who knew my grandparents well. She told me, “We miss the commitment of individuals like Yitzhak Amin Rosenthal.”
What was most meaningful for me, was the knowledge that with great courage and integrity, my grandparents dedicated their lives to the enhancement of the Jewish community. It made me feel very proud to be a part of this legacy and made me realize the responsibility each one of us has to klal Yisrael (the Jewish nation).
Today, we face the challenge of sustaining Jewish communities around the world, particularly in Germany, which has the fastest growing Jewish community in Europe. Rabbi Langnas faces many of the same challenges my grandfather faced nearly six decades ago. He confronts the difficulties of internal pressures while he strives to establish the infrastructure needed to build a day school system, synagogue, and program for youth, families and the elderly.
The dedication and skills required of Rabbi Langnas, as well as of us as future leaders, are the same tools used by my grandfather to help restore a lost Jewish world. This unselfish devotion to advance Jewish life and learning is the key to our survival today and for the future.
Avi Fried YC ’04
Jan 13, 2004 — I was amazed at the beauty of the restored city of Munich as we began our walking tour upon arrival in Germany. It was freezing cold and I hadn’t slept in days but there was so much to see. Everyone in our group had different reactions to modern day Germany. Should we admire the glamorous shops, boutiques, and historic Gothic architecture? Or should we take a more cynical approach to the culture that was typical of pre-war Germany?
For many of us, one of the highlights, was the visit to the home of Rabbi Steven Langnas, chief rabbi of Munich. When I entered, I immediately felt as if I were in a home in the Breuer community in Washington Heights. Finally I was in the Germany I wanted to see! Rabbi Langnas’ apartment is a living example of what Jewish life was once like in Germany. The chandeliers were typical of lamps used in German Jewish homes; there was a large collection of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s books and numerous books on German Jewish customs.
Rabbi Langnas graciously served an elegant dinner for our group of 15 and was genuinely delighted by our company. He was very open and candid in answering our questions about what motivates him to live in Munich with his family so far from home and his vision for the future of Jewish life in Munich. He felt strongly that it is critical to provide Jewish education and services to the Jews who chose to live in Germany whether or not we agree with their choice.
Friday morning we were invited to the meet with representatives of the Ministry of Education. Frau Berggreen, head of international affairs for the Ministry, amazed us when, in a broken voice and with tears in her eyes, told us that she was ashamed of Germany’s history in the last century. She passionately explained to us the mentality of people of her generation and of the heavy burden that their history has placed on their shoulders.
When asked about the possibility of a negative backlash against such a large emphasis being placed on the Holocaust, the Ministry told us that the generation after World War II, whether they like it or not, carries the burden of its past and does not have the luxury of ignoring that responsibility.
Another eye-opener was that there isn’t any separation of church and state in Germany. Every student is required to receive instruction in religion or ethics for the nonbelievers. Students must register for a specific religious track. For a Jewish child in Bavaria, this entails afternoon classes in Judaism. This applies to those students attending state schools as opposed to those studying in yeshivot.
My experiences on this trip have made me realize how much I take for granted as a Jew living in North America. The dedication of Rabbi Langnas and his community provided us with an inspiring model for a young rabbinical student.
Yitzhak Szyf SSSB ’04
Jan 15, 2004 — Following davening and a German-style breakfast of salami and eggs, we headed to the Frankfurt cemetery early Monday morning. We went to the section of the Austritts Gemeinde, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch´s community. We visited the graves of both Rav Hirsch and Rav Breuer, the grandfather and father of Rav Joseph Breuer, the founder of the German community in Washington Heights. It was very meaningful to say a chapter of Tehillim near the tombs of men who were so pivotal in building Modern Orthodox Judaism. There was an additional measure of meaningfulness for me, since I pray regularly at the Breuer´s shul in Washington Heights, and many of the family names were familiar to me. When I return to Breuer´s, I look forward to telling members that I said Tehillim at their ancestors´ tombs.
We then set off for Worms, a major center of Jewish life in medieval times. We toured Judengaße and the local shul, constructed in 1034, reputed to be one of the oldest remaining synagogues in Europe. Despite repeated destruction, it has been restored to its original form. I was disappointed to learn that in later centuries, it was converted to a liberal shul with an organ added and the mechitza removed.
After a short visit to the Rashi Haus, named after the revered medieval scholar, Rashi, despite his never having lived there or learned there, we went to the Worms cemetery containing Jewish graves dating back as far as 1174. I was very moved to see the tombs of the Maharam Me’Rotenburg, the Maharil, the Havot Yair and several other important commentators on the gemara. The Maharil was particularly important to me as he discusses the basis for many Ashkenazic minhagim which is of great interest to me. After a long day in the rain, we flew to Berlin and had dinner at the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
Tuesday morning was very intriguing. As the awkward feeling of being in the land where my grandparents lost all their relatives was dissipating, we visited the Bundestag, Germany´s Parliament. The main goal of Bridge of Understanding, the organization that brought us to Germany, was to show us how modern Germany has changed, and their democratic system was supposed to demonstrate this.
We met with four politicians from the spectrum of German political parties, who primarily discussed issues concerning foreign policy related to Israel, domestic policy regarding the Jewish community, and anti-Semitism. Politicians from the Liberal party and the Social Democrats presented views that led me to believe that I could never have faith in German policy, while the Christian Democrat and Green party representatives gave me a bit more hope.
After touring the Reichstag building, we ended the day with a wonderful dinner with Karsten D. Voigt, the German coordinator of trans-Atlantic foreign policy. Contrary to the politicians we had met earlier, he answered questions fully, raised controversial points and analysed American foreign policy. His presence was the highlight of the day for many. His friendly, knowledgeable, controversial attitude is exactly what I, and many of my fellow students, feel a politician should be.
On Wednesay morning we had a bus tour of Berlin. We saw the grave of Moses Mendelsohn, founder of Reform Judaism, the Brandenburg Gate, location of the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie.
At dinner we met Rabbi Ehrenberg, chief rabbi of Berlin and Germany. The rabbi’s appearance seemed typical of rabbis of his age and stature, but he was very different from the stereotype. He was among the warmest men I ever met, reminding me of one of the rabbis from my yeshiva in Israel. He spoke gently in Hebrew and commended us on our endeavors in becoming rabbis. He spoke of the current Jewish situation in Berlin and his efforts to improve it. He regularly conducts Carlebach minyanim at his shul to attract a younger crowd, speaks on television twice a week, and hopes to teach Torah on the Internet. He is currently trying to learn Russian as he views Russian Jews as the future of the German Jewish community. Rabbi Ehrenberg is truly a wonderful person, a wonderful rabbi and someone that we, as semicha students, should strive to emulate.
Jan 20, 2004 — “I saw that show in America, but they could never air it here in Germany because of our history with the Jews and the Holocaust. Its anti-Semitic references are reprehensible”. This comment by a random young German riding the Berlin subway reflects the tension in modern day Germany of a nation struggling to bear the burden of the Holocaust while not being consumed by it.
We and nine other rabbinical students from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Yeshiva University, set out on a ten-day mission to Germany, with some apprehension. The purpose of our trip was to visit several German Jewish communities, and to evaluate the relationship between American Jewry and contemporary Germany, home to the fastest growing Jewish community in the Europe.
The study and commemoration of the Shoah is at the core of contemporary Germany’s consciousness. Germany faces the daunting task of carrying the shame of its past, while at the same time progressing toward the future. Holocaust education is a required component of the education curriculum of all schools. By learning the lessons of their ancestors’ mistakes, Germans hope to foster a generation sensitive to the horrors that can arise from intolerance and fanaticism.
Not only does the memory of the Holocaust affect how Germans educate their youth, it also shapes how Germans view their relationship with, and responsibility toward, the Jewish people and the State of Israel. German immigration policy grants special favor to Jewish people in the form of economic incentives and relaxation of absorption laws. In the last ten years, over 100,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have immigrated to Germany. In addition, the amount of money given to the Jewish communities far exceeds their numbers. This commitment to rebuilding Jewish communal life is a reflection of deeper feelings toward the Jewish people.
During meetings with representatives of four major parties at the Bundestag (German parliament), our group heard repeated affirmations of Germany’s unwavering dedication to the State of Israel. Even those who expressed disagreement with certain policies of the Sharon government, emphasized that these differences in no way bias Germany’s broader relationship with Israel, who, second to the United States, is Germany’s largest trade partner. Israel, in turn, considers Germany to be its closest friend in a hostile European environment.
As Germany grapples with its past, and tries to lay the foundation for a viable, healthy relationship with the Jewish people, we as Jews should reassess how we will interact with Germany. The new reality of a repentant Germany which serves as a vital partner of Israel, and where a sizable Jewish population has chosen to live, demands that we at least consider engaging it, even if only for pragmatic reasons.
Explaining the Holocaust is impossible. So too is an attempt to offer a definitive answer to how far Germany must go before we allow them to fully turn the page. Favors and reparations alone will never remove the pain, nor right the wrong of the Holocaust. Additionally, while there may be valid and compelling arguments that American Jewry acknowledge the new reality of postwar Germany, the ever present deep wounds of the Holocaust that continue to haunt the Jewish people is not quantifiable, and cannot be ignored.
After having met select representatives of German society, we returned to YU questioning many of our preconceived assumptions and stereotypes. However, reconciliation with Germany’s infamous past will always be tinged with the specter of haunting memories and unanswered questions.
Phil Moskowitz, YC ’04, RIETS ‘07 and Yoni Chambre, YC, 04, RIETS ‘07