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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From Berlin Will Come Forth Torah Hamodia 2010

From Berlin Will Come Forth Torah

By Debbie Shapiro

Lead –
Friday midmorning: We were sitting with Rabbi Josh Spinner, head of Lauder Yeshurun, in a quiet café located in East Berlin's upscale Mitte neighborhood, munching scandalously rich brownies that were baked by the Rebbetzin of Leipzig, a young woman with two small children, who was born in Russia and raised in the United States. The last few hours had been spent touring the local day school, where we encountered little boys with peyos who could easily fit into a Yerushalmi cheder as well as bright young men and women dedicated to creating a thriving Jewish kehillah in – of all places -- Berlin, and we were amazed.

"Whatever you do," said Rabbi Spinner, "don't begin your article with something like," his voice turned melodramatic, "'A few kilometers from the government buildings where Hitler conceived his war of destruction against the Jews, there exists a thriving Orthodox community.' All the journalists do that."

Actually, I had been toying with the idea, but now, of course, I realized that it was much too cliche. The Yiddishkeit that we had encountered was pulsating with life, it was vibrant and exciting; the people we had met were growing and changing. The community was creating deep, solid foundations. It wasn't shadowed by past horrors.

"The rebirth of Berlin's Yiddishkeit is not an answer to the Holocaust. The spiritual churban started a hundred and fifty years before that," my husband pointed out. "And it also began in Berlin. The leaders of the Haskalah believed that the 'Torah' of Berlin – the 'Torah' of culture and academia --  was a new and more relevant 'Torah,' while Toras Hashem was, chas v'shalom, passé, an antiquity of historical interest to be relegated to a dusty museum. As the Meshech Chachmah so succinctly put it, 'They – the maskilim - believe that 'ki m'Berlin teitzei Torah,' 'from Berlin will come forth Torah.' Today, however…" my husband was so overcome with emotion that he could barely continue, "we see that they were right. From BerlinBerlin! – is coming forth Torah, emesdik Torah - Toras Hashem." End Lead

Following the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, mainly Jews, ended up in Germany, yet only somewhere between twenty-five to thirty thousand Jews- almost all non-observant - chose to remain. The idea of remaining on Germany's blood stained soil was repulsive and most fled at the very first opportunity, never to return.
All that changed in the late 1980s, when the Iron Curtain cracked and close to 100,000 halachic Jews, together with their family members, chose the economic security of Germany to the idealism -- and financial hardships - of Eretz Yisrael. Suddenly, from a country with a relatively small and shrinking Jewish population, Germany became the country with the tenth largest Jewish population in the world, and the only one, other than Israel, with a growing Jewish population.

Unlike most immigrants, however, they are not interested in blending into the surrounding culture. "Germany is unique," explains Jonathan Konits, a rabbinical student at Lauder Yeshurun, "in that it is all but impossible for a Jew living here to wholeheartedly connect to the national identity. As opposed to immigrants to the United States who try desperately to become Americanized, these Russian Jews do not want to become German. Instead, they are searching for their own identity, which makes it that much easier to reach out to them and show them the beauty of Torah and mitzvos."

With a hundred thousand halachic Jews dispersed throughout Germany, who, even as they climb the economic ladder cannot help but feel like strangers in a foreign land, the situation was ripe for outreach. These precious neshomos were begging for direction. But where could one find a frum Jew willing to live in – of all places -- Germany?

Meet Rabbi Josh Spinner, the driving force behind Lauder Yeshurun, the leading outreach organization in Germany. Originally from Hamilton, Canada, Rabbi Spinner's life took a dramatic change after he met Mr. Ronald S. Lauder, founder and President of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. "I met Mr. Lauder when I took a year off to do outreach in Minsk. He asked me how I could just continue on with my life when I had the ability to save Jewish neshomos.

"The following summer something happened that really emphasized my responsibility to klal Yisrael. A friend and I were asked to travel to Germany to lead Yom Kippur services for a group of Russian Jews. I wasn't sure if I was permitted to go, after all, how could I spend Yom Kippur – Yom Kippur! – without a proper minyan? But when I asked my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Dovid Feinstein shlita, about it, he answered, 'If you can go, you must go!' That response changed the direction of my life. I had found my calling.

"Although I was aware that close to a hundred thousand Russian Jews lived in Germany without a single outreach worker, I assumed -- as did most people -- that since they had chosen Germany above Eretz Yisrael, they were not at all interested in learning about their Jewish heritage and that it would be extremely difficult to bring them close to Torah and mitzvos.

"I realized that this common assumption was a mistake while leading a Shabbaton in Minsk. I met a teenager who, together with his parents, had moved from the Soviet Union to Germany, and was now back in his hometown visiting old friends. When I asked him if he would be interested in our coming to Germany to organize seminars and classes, he became very excited. Then I told him my reservations – that any Jew who would choose to live in Germany rather than Eretz Yisrael would not be not interested in Yiddishkeit. He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Don't punish us for the decisions of our parents.'

"Today, that boy is a frum Jew."


After this conversation, Rabbi Spinner set his sights on Germany, where he eventually founded and presently heads Lauder Yeshurun. Lauder Yeshurun is unique in that the yeshiva and Midrasha are at the core of the outreach, as Rabbi Spinner describes it, "it's a ripple effect." Most of the students are products of the system; they graduated from seminar to classes to yeshiva/midrasha, and, "since Torah is transformative," they themselves become leaders, teaching classes to beginners, running seminars, organizing summer camps. 

The system is so successful that although most of the boys studying in the yeshiva are from non-religious backgrounds, the atmosphere – and the level of learning – is comparable with most mainstream yeshivas.  "Last year, on the yehrtzeit of the Pri Megadim, one of our students gave an original pshetel explaining a difficult shtikel from the Pri Megadim.  Dayan Yehudah Polatschek of the Hisachdus Harabbanim of American and Canada, and Horav Eluzer Kestenbaum, both from New York, had come for the yehrtzeit and were extremely impressed. 'Where did that young man learn?' they asked me. I responded, 'Here, in Berlin' but they just repeated, 'Yes, yes, but where did he learn?' They couldn't believe that this young man, today an accomplished talmid chacham, knew almost nothing of Yiddishkeit when he entered our yeshiva a few years before that."

What most impressed me during my three day stay at Lauder Yeshurun was the all pervading sense of stability, what's known in the frum world as "normalcy." As Rabbi Spinner jokingly explained, "When I was a kid, two neighborhood bullies asked me and my friend how we keep our beanies attached to our heads.  I was petrified, but my friend responded, 'With balance.'"

Attaining that "normalcy" is far from easy. "Rapid growth often counteracts balance," explained Rabbi Spinner. "But putting on the black hat or shaitel is just the beginning; it's then that our job begins. It's important for our talmidim to see normal, multi-generation families – people who really live Yiddishkeit -  so we send them to London and Antwerp to spend Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim in established communities; to experience it from the inside. We also provide them with lots of personal hadrachah." 

Lauder Yeshurun created an entire kehilla infrastructure – from mikveh to kosher store to day school --  to serve the expanding yeshiva community as well as the many young families in the neighborhood who are influenced by the community's outreach programs. I had the privilege of spending a morning with Rabbi David Kern, principal of the Lauder Beth Zion Elementary school, located in a former Jewish school that was closed in 1941 after its last students were deported. Rabbi Kern is native to East Berlin and as a youngster taking his first tentative steps in Torah observance under the extremely anti-religious communist regime, he attended Shabbos services at the magnificent Rykestrasse Synagogue situated in the school's courtyard. Although I was awed at the shul's regal beauty, it paled in comparison to the techiyas hameisim we witnessed next door; imagine, a Jewish school, abandoned for close to seventy years that is today bursting with Yiddishe children learning Torah! During our three days in East Berlin we repeatedly encountered this sense of miraculous revival, a modern day techiyas hameisim.


The yeshiva was kind enough to provide us with lodgings – a beautiful guest room in the enclosed courtyard surrounding the renovated pre-war synagogue that houses the yeshiva. Falling asleep to the haunting melody of Torah study, and awakening to the sound of davening, I felt secure with the knowledge that I was  surrounded by kedusha.

Motzaie Shabbos, we joined Rabbi Dovid and Rebbetzin Talya Rose for melava malka in their elegant prewar apartment, located just a few blocks away from the yeshiva. Originally from London, Rabbi Rose spent five years in kollel before moving with his wife and two small children to Berlin. They were among the first six families to establish the kollel. 

When I asked Rabbi Rose how he ended up in Germany, he explained, "I never ever dreamed I'd be here. But then I met Rabbi Spinner. He had come to Jerusalem to look for families to move to Berlin. When he spoke about his dreams for the community, I realized that that is where I could really accomplish something."

Rebbetzin Talya Rose continued, "When we moved here, there wasn’t much of a community; just the Spinners, a couple dozen bachurim, two young couples without children. Our first Shabbos here we invited four bachurim to join us for the meals. We wanted them to experience a real Jewish family, to see Jewish life from the inside.

"One of the positive aspects of living in Berlin is that we have absolutely no desire to mix with the surrounding society; the contrast between us and 'them' is clear and intense. Our children are growing up with very clear internal boundaries; they are not drawn to the street."

Like everyone in the yeshivah community, the Roses' wear many different hats. In addition to taking care of the administrative aspects of the yeshiva, Rabbi Rose learns in the kollel and teaches in the Mirasha.  Rebbetzin Talya takes care of her growing family, teaches classes, provides private hadracha to the women of the community and takes care of their many guests.

Sunday morning, we were introduced to Jonathan Konits, a Swathmore graduate, who originally came to Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship to study German history. "I was afraid of the religious establishment; religion was taboo. But in Berlin, I was free to explore. I started out studying gemara on a totally intellectual level and eventually I evolved to where I am today." Jonathan is presently studying for his semicha in the Hildesheimer Rabbinical seminary, affiliated with Yeshivas Beis Zion. His wife, originally from Germany, attends dental school and takes care of their two children. In addition to studying for semicha, Jonathan is working toward his doctorate. "I hope to become a campus rabbi; that's how I can really impact the world. At all the universities, courses about Judaism are packed. The kids are curious. University is a time of exploration, and the students hunger for emes."

That same morning we also met Rabbi Shaul Nekritch who teaches the yeshiva's beginning class and organizes seminars to not-yet-religious Jews in the small cities throughout Germany. Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, Rabbi Nekritch visited Israel and ended up spending ten years learning under the legendary Rabbi ? Yitzchak Zilber of Jerusalem. "We had a very special relationship. I would sit next to him, and he would hold my hand."

Rabbi Nekritch's come from a famous rabbinical family. His great-grandfather was a rav, "which is the reason the Bolsheviks murdered him. Sadly enough, his son, my grandfather, moved to Petersburg to find a livelihood – he was literally starving -- and ended up becoming a diehard communist who despised frum Yidden."

Rabbi Nekritch teaches the yeshiva's beginning shiur. "I start with alef-beis -- literally. But the boys are really motivated and learn quickly. You have to understand, here in Germany, the universities are free, and the government covers the students' rent. Because there are other options, if a boy comes here to learn, it means that he's really serious about his studies. It's not as if it's the only option available to him. My greatest pleasure is when I can tell my student that he no longer needs me."

Rabbi Nekritch also heads the Jewish Life Leaders project, a three year program to train Germany's future Jewish leaders. "Once a month the participants, all activists in their communities, get together for a few days to study Judaism. While we provide them with the tools they'll need to create vibrant Jewish kehillos in their hometowns, they slowly become more observant."

Over the next two days we met many other members of the Berlin community: Rueven and Julia Konnik, who became religious as a married couple living in Heidelberg: Julia urged her husband to leave her for six months  so that he could learn Torah in Jerusalem. Upon his return, she left a promising career to follow him to Berlin where they could continue to grow in their Yiddishkeit.

Mrs. Olga Orlowsky, who started becoming religious at a summer camp sponsored by the Lauder foundation: eventually she and her husband moved to the yeshiva community, where she was charged with creating a vibrant educational network for the community's children. "It was a bureaucratic maze. Here in Germany everything has to be done just right! But today, baruch Hashem, the school is flourishing."

Mrs. Olga Afanaseu, who started off as an anti-religious teenager and grew to become a rebbetzin and community teacher - "I attended one of the first seminars in Germany. We were about twenty-five young people, and all of us ended up becoming frum. I went to the seminar for the sole purpose of showing everyone that religion is wrong!" After graduating high school, Olga attended the Midrasha while studying at the university. It wasn’t long before she was asked to teach adult classes, "which raised my learning to an entirely new level." Eventually she traveled to Israel to attend Shalhevet, Neve's advanced program, and later on, Moreshet, a branch of Neve that trains women to work in outreach. "I always ask my students how to apply what we are studying to their lives, so that they will live Torah, not just learn Torah. It's impossible to teach them everything in the two-three years that they study here, but we can give them the tools and teach them to ask questions so that they will continue to learn."

Olga views her work as avodas kodesh. " There's no time to waste! We have the power to change people's lives. Baruch Hashem, I'm creating a beautiful Jewish home, but there are thousands of precious Yidden out there who aren't. It's our duty to stretch ourselves to help them." 

#  #  #

Of all the Holocaust memorials, Yad V'Shem's children's memorial is one of the most moving. Its genius lies in its simplicity - a singular flame reflected by mirrors to attain infinity, symbolizing the potential generations that were lost with the death of each victim. Today, a spiritual Holocaust is snuffing out flames of Jewish eternity. And like those few, brave individuals who worked tirelessly to save Jewish lives two generations ago, today, there are individuals like the Spinners, the Roses, the Afanaseves, the Nekritches,  the Konites, the Orlowskys and the Konniks, who, with tremendous mesirus nefesh, are devoting their lives to give Jews what is rightfully theirs – their heritage. And in doing so, they are opening the doors to future generations of G-d fearing, ehrlicher Yidden who will be willing and able to great the Moshiach.

"My grandmother's entire family was murdered in the Holocaust," Talya Rose said. "Today, she is the matriarch of an empire, with some fifty descendents. But at the end of the War, she was left with nothing. Who would believe that someday her grandchildren would end up teaching Torah in Germany? Who would believe that Torah— Toras chaim, a live, viable Torah --  would once again sprout on the arid soil of Germany?"

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