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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three Days in Berlin Shaah Tovah 2010


By Debbie Shapiro

LEAD "When we arrived in Berlin thirteen years ago, everyone looked at us as if we were crazy. Frum Yidden living in Berlin? But Germany is changing rapidly. Twenty years ago there were less than thirty thousand Jews in all of Germany; today, for good or for bad, there are 130,000 Jews registered in the Jewish community, although many estimate it to  be a quarter of a million. These Jews are thirsting for Torah, and that's the only reason we are here."
West Berlin 
Wednesday night – our taxi pulled up in front of Berlin's Chabad Center but I was positive the driver had made a mistake. The fortress-like building, surrounded by a high, chain-linked fence and strategically spaced concrete posts, didn't look like a synagogue. And to top it all off, there were two guards busily stamping their feet and rubbing their gloved hands to keep from freezing stationed outside a booth marked "Polizei." But our driver just laughed. "Get used to this," he said. "Policemen are posted in front of every Jewish institution. This is Germany, after all."

Germany; the homeland of my husband's ancestors, the country that had waged an all-out war against my people; for years I refused to buy anything manufactured in this cursed land. Yet, here I was in Berlin -- the city where Hitler declared his intention to rid Europe of the Jewish pestilence -- to attend a ceremony honoring a non-Jewish woman who had assisted our family. Hashem certainly has a great sense of humor!

Despite its forbidding exterior, we found the Chabad House to be warm and inviting. The rabbis there were eager to show us the vibrant Jewish life that is sprouting like wildflowers in Berlin.

After being shown to our quarters, a spacious room almost directly opposite the men's mikveh and just a flight of stairs away from the shul, we walked down the hall to Chabad's LeChaim restaurant. My husband and I were starving. We had spent the day touring Prague, and had eaten nothing but pretzels and water. We were thrilled to finally sit down to a proper – and delicious – meal.
LeChaim Restaurant is a popular gathering place for the many Jewish students who flock to Germany to take advantage of its free universities. From our table in the corner we could hear half a dozen languages -- Hebrew, French, English, Spanish, Yiddish, and yes, even a spattering of German – being spoken. Some of the young men placed small kippot on their heads as a sign of respect, but no one requested this of them. The conversations ranged from passionate arguments over the existence of G-d to talk about the latest movie or television show.
At a center table an elderly Yerushalmi Yid seemed to hold court, nodding his head to all who entered. He had come to collect for a yeshiva and most of the patrons walked over to where he was sitting to give him their donation. Many kissed his hand as a sign of respect.
"Our restaurant revolutionized the concept of kashrus in Berlin. A lot of people were under the impression that kosher is the opposite of gourmet." Rabbi Teichtal, director of Chabad Berlin, later explained. "But all that changed once they tasted our food! After tasting good kosher food, many people in the community started serving kosher food at their simchos. Over a hundred local families have even kashered their kitchens."
Who would imagine that something a restaurant could have such an impact?

Nazi Hotel Cum Cheder

The following morning, we traveled across town to visit Ohr Avner, West Berlin's Jewish day-school. Ohr Avner is housed in a secluded mansion inside a large gated park. With its tall ceilings, spacious fireplaces, and wide, central circular staircase, the building is reminiscent of a World War II movie. In front of the building stands a large monument topped with the Nazi Eagle; during the Second World War, the building housed an exclusive hotel to provide rest and entertainment to the Nazi commanders on furlough from the front.
Today, the building pulsates with life – Jewish life. Half a dozen stuffed toy Torah scrolls are piled against one of the fireplaces. From the adjoining room I hear children singing Hebrew songs.  We enter one of the classrooms, where a blonde-haired girl with sparkling eyes is responding in Hebrew to the teacher's question. "Her parents are converts," Rabbi Gewirtz, the principal, literally beams with pride as he describes her family, "such dedicated, committed Jews…" In the next classroom, we hear a little boy explaining a pasuk in Chumash, "His mother's Jewish, and thanks to her son, she's slowly coming back." During recess, a young boy races past us. "He used to come to school each morning without a kippah. Last Friday at lunch – the children receive a hot fleishig lunch daily -- he asked me what bracha to make on the soup. Tears spring to my eyes at this powerful display of survival. "In every generation they rise up against us," yet we, Am Yisrael, will prevail, because "Hashem saves us from their hands."
"A lot of Israelis send their kids here," Rabbi Gewirtz continues. "In Israel, they want nothing to do with Judaism, but here, while being immersed in German culture, they realize that they are different and as a result they want their children to have a Jewish education." 

Our driver, who doubles as the school's maintenance man, is one of the many non-religious Israelis drawn to Berlin's Chabad Center. "When I lived in Israel," he said, "I didn't think much about my being Jewish. But here, we Jews stick together. We're in our own little bubble; we've created our own little community. As crazy as it may sound, in Berlin I am much more aware of my Jewish heritage – and much more observant -- than I ever was in Israel."

Before our minibus pulls away from the school, dozens of small children with outstretched hands crowd around the driver. As he places a candy in each of their palms, his smile grows wider as he watches them prance away in delight. "Last time I traveled to Israel, I purchase over ten kilos of kosher candies," he proudly tells us. "Half my luggage was candy for the school children!" The proverbial shul candy man, transported to foreign soil!

 That afternoon, Rabbi Teichtal gave me a private tour of the Chabad Center. After pointing out the ultra modern stained glass entrance, the lobby with stones reminiscent of the Kosel, "to help people feel a connection to Eretz Yisrael," and the award-winning shul, "one of the most beautiful in Berlin," he adds,  "The building is not the ikar, the main thing; it's just a springboard to reach people and bring them back. Here in Germany, esthetics are extremely important. If we need a beautiful structure to draw them to Yiddishkeit, then we're going to have the most stunning building possible." 
As Rabbi Teichtal speaks about the different ways in which Chabad has impacted the Jewish community – they've affixed over 3,500 muzuzos; built one of the most luxurious mikveh taharos in Europe; influenced close to 200 families to keep the halachos of taharos hamishpochah; sent informative pamphlets about the basics of Judaism to hundreds of local families – my initial amazement turns to astonishment.
Chabad Berlin also runs a small baal teshuvah yeshivah  where over a dozen boys immerse themselves in a Torah life as they learn about their heritage. Although some of the boys learn full time, many are continuing their high school or university studies, while learning in the yeshiva in the afternoons and weekends. Several of the yeshivah's students have continued to mainstream yeshivos. "Many of our bachurim arrive knowing nothing about Yiddishkeit," Rabbi Teichtal explained. "When I asked one of the boys, for example, why he never participated in the davening, he responded, 'I can't pray if I don't believe in Him.' One month later, that same boy had a briss and today, a year later, he's a tremendous masmid. Come to the bais medrash late at night and you'll find him shteiging away."

Rabbi Teichtal continues talking the different ideas he has for reaching out to the Jews of Germany. He speaks with a sense of urgency. "Before I go to sleep at night, I ask myself, what can I do to bring another Yid close to Yiddishkiet, to reach another Jewish soul? We can never pat ourselves on the back until we've reached every single Jew."

Shabbos Adventures
Friday morning I wake up early and climb the stairs leading to the Center's main lobby, where I discover two very secular-looking Israelis arguing over G-d's existence. "Of course G-d exists," says one, his bare head belying his emunah. "I came to that realization while traveling through India. But I still have no idea what that means to me personally." The second Israeli argues valiantly against G-d, but his believing counterpart cannot be swayed. Although he has no idea if and how his newfound belief would impact his life, he had come to the conclusion that the world was created by a Creator and that that Creator is intimately involved in every aspect of our lives.

"Excuse me," I warily interrupt the theological discussion. "Could I ask you why you decided to visit Germany? What are you hoping to find here?"

The young Israeli laughs. "I wanted to travel to Europe, and Berlin had the cheapest plane ticket. I purchased a one way ticket 'cause I'm not going back."

A few hours later, I notice elderly couple, shlepping a raggedy shopping cart, climb the half dozen stairs leading to the Center's lobby. They were soon joined by several dozen others, all who had come to receive delicacies in honor of the upcoming Shabbos. "Every week we distribute three hundred packages of prepared Shabbos food, mainly to elderly Russian immigrants. Just because a Jew's poor doesn't mean that he can't enjoy Shabbos," explains Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, director of Chabad Berlin.

Thank G-d we did not have to resort to packaged food for Shabbos. Friday night, we found ourselves sitting at the Teichtals elegant Shabbos table together with close to a dozen other guests, from children who attend the day school to multi-billionaires to two kashrus supervisors for Jerusalem's Eidah Chareidis. Residents of Antwerp, they had traveled from the factory they were supervising in Poland to Berlin to be able to spend Shabbos with other Orthodox Jews. Despite our very different backgrounds and the variety of languages, the conversation flowed. At one point, Rabbi Teichtal asked his thirteen year old son to say a dvar Torah to the assembled guests. The youngster looked around the room, from the Kashrut supervisor who didn't understand a word of English to the multi-billionaire who spoke only English to the Spanish speaking elementary school teacher, and asked, "But Tatty, which language should I say it in?"

Early Shabbos morning I climbed to the top floor to relax with a book in the Center's library. Halfway through an interesting collection of stories, I realized that I had better go downstairs if I didn't want to miss the Shabbos seudah. That's when I discovered that someone had locked the door from the outside!

I pounded on the door, but no one came to open it. I stuck my head out the window and screamed, but no one heard. I banged again, I screamed again, I stuck my head out the front window and screamed. I stuck my head out the back windows and screamed. I found a stick and banged the door with all my might. But no one saw and no one heard; no one saw and no one heard.

Finally, after two hours of screaming and banging, when my arms were already sore and my throat aching, the German guard – the same German guard who stood in front of the building staring sternly at all who entered – unlocked the door and let me out.

"Didn't you hear the banging?" I had been making a racket.

"Yes," he answered, carefully locking the door behind me.

"So why didn't you come to let me out?"

"I had no idea what the noise was," was his logical answer.

Talk about a square, or more accurately, a cube. It was chilling-- no one heard, no one saw. A German guard doing his duty, but the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
After that adventure, I was thrilled to join the congregation for a massive Kiddush, replete with challah, fish and chulent. The tables were crowded with Jews of all stripes -- elderly Russian immigrants, German converts, tourists, young Lubovitch families, Israeli chilonim. So many different types of Jews, sitting together in achdus; it was obvious that while some had come for the free food, others were there solely for the ruchniyus.

After Kiddush, Rabbi Gewirtz, principal of the Ohr Avner Day School, invited us to join him and his family for the Shabbos seudah. Although she had not been expecting us, his wife was warm and welcoming. We were only six poeple – Rabbi and Mrs. Gewirtz, my husband and I and the two other guests – the table was set for eight because, as the rebbetzin explained, "I never know who's going to show up."
Rebbetzin Gewirtz spoke to me about the challenges of shlichus. It's not easy for a young woman, barely out of her teens, to leave her extended family and move to a foreign country where she suddenly finds herself thrust into the role of rebbetzin, reaching out to help others while somehow managing on her own. But Rebbetzin Gewirtz looks for the positive. "We really have it easy here. I have some friends doing shlichus in India…"

The Gewirtz family, as well as the Teichtals and the many other frum families living in West Berlin are there to stay. "Yes," explains Rebbetzin Gewirtz, "we're here on shlichus. But that means that we're making our home here, and by doing that, we hope to impact the lives of the Jews living here."

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