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Students Gain Unique Perspective of Germany And Connect With Local Jewish Community on CJF Program

As the spring semester drew to a close, a select group of 16 students traveled to Germany May 25-June 2 as part of Germany Close Up, a week-long program organized by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) for participants to learn about Germany’s contemporary Jewish community and the effects of the Holocaust on its growth.

Germany Close Up is a youth encounter program administered by the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace in cooperation with the New Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum Foundation and is funded by a grant from the German Government’s Transatlantic Program, which draws on funds from the European Recovery Program of the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.

Remains of the Berlin Wall

The group at the remains of the Berlin Wall

Accompanied by Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, associate dean of the CJF, and Aliza Abrams, director of the CJF’s Department of Jewish Service Learning, students enjoyed a unique multi-dimensional experience that allowed them to reflect on their own Jewish identity on an intellectual and emotional level, while connecting to the local Jewish community as well.

“Traveling to Germany is an emotionally charged experience,” said Abrams. “As a Jew you are confronted with many questions and think about every step you take in Germany and every person you interact with. Our group had very meaningful interactions with both the Jewish community and members of the non-Jewish community who are committed to sharing their country’s history in an effort to ensure that a Holocaust will never happen again.”

Panel discussions with local politicians touched on topics relating to history and anti-Semitism and gave students a chance to explore a multitude of thought-provoking issues in an effort to understand how German society confronts its history.

“The students questioned, challenged and dialogued with these leaders with thoughtfulness, passion and great insight,” said Rabbi Glasser.

concentration camp

Students visit the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin

Visits to the Jewish Museum of Berlin, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and several Jewish memorials also created poignant moments of deep reflection and opportunities to connect to the broader narrative of the Jewish people. The highlight of the trip was a memorable Shabbat spent in Leipzig, where students connected with the small but dedicated Jewish community, infusing energy and enthusiasm into the davening, which took place in the city’s only remaining shul; 18 others were destroyed in the Holocaust.

“A city which was once home to 14,000 Jews now has just a minyan, but by far one of the most lively minyanim I have ever davened with,” said Abrams.

“I will never forget the YU students grabbing the hands of the devoted congregants in Leipzig and leading them in dance throughout their shul on Friday night,” added Rabbi Glasser.

Students were equally inspired by the meaningful Shabbat experience.

“Feeling like you are making a difference and enhancing a whole community’s shabbat brings more joy to you than it does to the people living in the community, and we all felt that joy,” said Ely Kaplan. “The trip was eye-opening and inspiring.”

Kaplan had previously traveled to Poland with his yeshiva in Israel and expected the Germany trip to be similar, but he was mistaken.

“I am so happy that I went because it gave me a completely different perspective on the Germany of today, which I will hopefully use to educate my friends and family who haven’t had such experiences,” he said. “The trip was not solely focused on Germany’s dark past, but rather was meant to show us everything Germany has done and continues to do, in whatever way possible, to amend the broken situation they caused.”

The group enjoys a walking tour of Berlin

The group enjoys a walking tour of Berlin

The trip also gave participants a newfound sense of gratitude for the Jewish lives they are able to lead.

“The students developed a deep appreciation for the heroic efforts of the educators and Rabbis in Germany who work tirelessly to inspire a new generation of German Jews in their dedication to Torah and mitzvot,” said Rabbi Glasser. “There were many hours of reflective conversation regarding the level of self-sacrifice to which one could strive for ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people. The students also recognized the immense religious infrastructure in the developed Jewish communities of North America that they often take for granted.”

Other programs recently organized by the CJF include the Aaron and Blanche Schreiber Torah Tours, where 150 students traveled to 28 communities for Shavuot, giving inspiring shiurim, running innovative youth programs and enhancing the holiday celebrations for Jewish communities all across the country. Small groups of students are also spending the month of June interning in communities across the United States. They traveled to South Bend, Indiana; Houston, Texas; and Kansas City, Kansas to intern in a variety of fields, including medicine, IT and engineering, while also running shabbat and nightly learning programs for the local Jewish communities.

“These experiences expand the scope and depth with which our students think about and engage the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, vice president of university and community life and the David Mitzner dean of the CJF. “They cultivate a deep sense of responsibility for the continuity of our people, and train our future leaders in how to engage the broader world.”