Mollie Sharfman ’10S has had an unusual path laid out for her in life. It is not one she would have chosen had she known all the details, but it is one which nevertheless has strengthened and deepened her faith both in herself and in the belief that “even in the hard times, G-d is there … standing by me, no matter what happens.”
Mollie grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in a family deeply involved in communal life; her parents even helped build the Jewish day school she attended.
For the Sharfman family, “YU was always our central station for Modern Orthodox education,” and given the YU history in the family, “going to Stern College was the natural next step.” Mollie’s father, Dr. William Sharfman, is a 1979 alumnus of Yeshiva College, and her mother, Paula Guttman Sharfman, graduated from Yeshiva University High School for Girls in 1978.
Her grandfather, Chazzan Joseph Guttman z”l, believed so deeply in the ideals of Yeshiva University that he sent Mollie’s mother, Paula, to the high school and her uncle, Rabbi Leonard Guttman ’77YUHS, ’81YC, ’81BR,’84R, ’92C, to Yeshiva University.
When she arrived in 2007, after spending a year in Israel studying at Midreshet Harova, Mollie immediately found that Stern College was “a continuation of the Jewish community work I did in Baltimore, but it gave me more opportunities to do it on a greater scale, interfacing with Jewish communities beyond my own,” especially through the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), where, by her own account, “I did almost every initiative they offered.”
She traveled across the United States and Canada with the Aaron and Blanche Schreiber’s Torah Tours, and she also participated in CJF’s humanitarian missions, “which brought my values alive.” The last of these missions, in 2010, took her to Germany in a joint project between CJF and Germany Close Up, an organization that “brings American Jews to Germany to discuss the country’s reconciliation process so that American Jews don’t think of Germany only through the lens of the Holocaust.”
Through that partnership and her work serving as the Director of Programming for New Jersey Junior NCSY while a student at Stern College, she became involved in the work being done in Germany by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. “I had no idea that this kind of work was being done in the country,” she noted, “and I decided that I wanted to be a part of it.”
In 2011, she worked as an adviser and education coordinator for the JOLT – NCSY summer program, traveling to Poland, Israel, and the Austrian Alps. She maintained close contact with everyone she met, and in 2019, she was given the chance to live and work in Berlin, Germany, becoming the deputy program and communications officer for Educating for Impact, whose mission is to “promote change in Jewish schools to secure and strengthen Jewish communities in Europe.” She also joined the board of Morasha Germany, the address for Jewish university students and young professionals in Germany.
The position gave her work that was fulfilling and consequential, connected to communities and leadership—everything she could have asked for. So, she began, as she said, “living the life of an ex-pat and a Jew abroad,” proud of her ability to take the risks and make them work to her advantage.
In October 2019, Mollie accompanied a group of young Jews who had been invited to visit the synagogue in Halle, Germany, for the celebration of Yom Kippur on Oct. 9. The synagogue served an older generation of Jews from the former Soviet Union who, as Mollie pointed out, “came to Germany to lead a quiet life” away from the difficulties of their former lives. In fact, her group had been invited “to give the older congregation a little more energy.”
Oct. 9 was also the day when the synagogue in the Paulusviertel neighborhood in the largest city in the German state of Saxony Anhalt underwent an armed attack by Stephan Balliet, a self-proclaimed Holocaust denier who blamed the Jews for promoting feminism, which he believed led to fewer births and increased immigration. For 35 minutes, he livestreamed his attack on the gaming site Twitch. Unable to get into the synagogue itself, he killed two bystanders—a woman, Jana Lange and a young man, Kevin S., in a doner kebab shop—and later injured two people in the nearby city of Landsberg. (At his trial, he was charged with two counts of murder and 68 counts of attempted murder.)
Minutes before the attack began, Mollie left the synagogue after the morning davening to go for a short walk and spend some meditative moments on a park bench. While the synagogue had a voluntary guard, no police had been assigned to protect the building, but Mollie noted that no one felt in danger, which is why she felt perfectly comfortable taking her break.
By her own account, she heard two very loud sounds a few minutes apart (most likely from a hand grenade thrown by Balliet into the synagogue’s cemetery) but no screams or any commotion. She continued sitting there for a short while and then decided to go back, only to confront battalions of police around the synagogue while other police pursued Balliet through what had now become an active shooter scene.
With the help of her friend, she managed to convince the police to let her back inside, where everyone continued praying, something they did even as the police escorted them to the hospital, where they did Neilah, the final prayer of Yom Kippur, before they were examined and escorted by the police back home.
Balliet was captured. On Oct. 11, during a court hearing, he confessed to the crime, and on April 11, German prosecutors formally filed charges against him.
And then the trial began on July 21, 2020. Prosecutors asked Mollie to be the lead witness from the victims.
A few months after the attack, Mollie was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, “and I had misgivings about doing what they had asked of me. I had done a lot of work to heal and even experienced post-traumatic growth and made sure the incident would not consume my life.”
But describing herself as a person who does what people ask her to if it needs to be done, she agreed to be the lead witness—but not for herself, or only for herself. “My grandfather, Chazzan Joseph Guttman z”l, survived the Holocaust, the only one of his family, and none of them had ever had the chance to stand in front of the person who had killed them. How many times in life do you have the chance to stand in front of that person and see them being brought to justice?”
German media carried accounts of her testimony, in which she spoke lovingly of her grandfather and everything that he meant to her. Here is how The Berliner Zeitung reported it:
And then Mollie S. talks about her grandfather, with whom she has a close relationship. He was the first to hold her in his arms after she was born. “He always wanted to protect me from all evil,” she says. The grandfather lost his whole family, more than 100 relatives, in the Holocaust. Because of the events in Halle, she now feels a special connection to her family. “I feel like a survivor now, too,” she says. And then she takes a piece of paper out of her pocket; on it is a prayer with which her grandfather always blessed her with tears on the eve of Yom Kippur, as she says. She reads it in Hebrew and English: “May God bless and protect you / May God show you favor and be gracious to you / May God show you kindness and grant you peace.” When Mollie S. says the prayer, it is completely silent in the courtroom. It is as if all of the dead from her family were suddenly sitting in the room.
Here is how one newspaper, Taz DE, reported what happened when Mollie finished her testimony:
Applause in the courtroom is considered inappropriate. But it does happen once, after acquittals, for example. Applause after questioning a witness is unusual. But that’s exactly how the eighth day of the trial in the trial of the right-wing extremist attack in Halle begins, when the co-plaintiff Mollie Sharfman freed herself from the assailant’s power on the witness stand. Mollie Sharfman is the first voice in the trial of the Jews who visited the Halle synagogue while the perpetrator tried to gain access to the building. Sharfman speaks calmly and deliberately past the perpetrator into the room and yet tells the 28-year-old right-wing extremist: “You messed with the wrong person, with the wrong family, with the wrong co-plaintiffs. You messed with the wrong people. From that day on, he will no longer cause me personal agony. It ends today.”
As she said in an interview with DW, “This attacker—this person who is filled with so much hate—he cannot take away what my grandfather taught me, what my grandfather gave me. So, that’s what made me feel the strongest was this connection with him. And I felt it was important to share that in the court. That is resilience.”
In the months since the trial, many thoughts have crossed her mind, not all of them neatly fitting one into the other. For instance, “this still doesn’t fit in with my narrative. I don’t fully accept that this happened to me. This is not how the story is supposed to go. My grandfather survived the Holocaust, we’re supposed to be safe, anti-Semitism is not supposed to be a problem that we, as a Jewish people still have (even though it is increasing in Europe and America). I don’t know what it means to ‘accept,’ what it looks like.”
Yet, she is acutely aware of the outward ripple effects of an incident like this. “The number of people who are affected by something like this is not just the ones affected immediately—the woman he shot, the nurse walking by the wounded woman who tried to help her, the taxi driver he assaulted, the young man killed in the doner shop and his devastated family. He targeted one group but ended up hitting everything. So many people will forever be affected by this hate crime.”
What she hopes to achieve is a state in life where “I am able to do the very opposite of what the attacker tried to do: to do work that achieves a positive ripple effect across the Jewish community and the world.”
“On the one hand, I feel empowered— I stood up to someone who is filled with so much hate—and on the other, it’s just one of those things that I bring up or not, depending on the situation.” She doesn’t want to be defined as “Mollie who was in a terrorist attack,” but she also knows that it will be something that will always shade her responses and the routine facts of daily living. “G-d willing, I will live a very happy and fulfilling life, living in my values, and this will only come up every so often. That is what I hope.”
For more of Mollie’s thoughts, read an account she wrote in The Jewish Week and an article for in the BBC, listen to a speech she gave outside the courtroom after her testimony and listen to excellent interviews with DW and BBC Radio.