One Semester, Two Journeys

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They came from France, Hungary, Israel, Poland, Turkey, Australia, The Netherlands, Germany, and even a few from the U.S. Though internationally diverse, they were not so different from the college kids who came through my seminar and lecture courses at Montana State University. They engaged with me in a “community of learners” even while I was still learning the ABCs of my new role as a German university instructor.

Statue_HTWInside the classroom I was back in a comfortable and familiar role, but the outside environment was quite different. Instead of trudging through the snow to meet my students on the MSU Bobcat campus, I rode the S-bahn and tram out to Oberschöneweide for my weekly three-hour Business Communications course at the Hochschule für Technik and Wirtschaft. The HTW campus sits on the site of a former cable factory in the middle of one of Berlin’s oldest industrial districts. The area was a major economic center under the former communist GDR, but fell on hard times after the wall came down. Located right on the river Spree, this revitalized industrial setting offers the campus community a sandy beach and terrace complete with refreshments and plenty of space to study or socialize. I’ll be back there next semester.

hausvogteiOn Mondays I travelled to Hausvogteiplatz in Mitte for my weekly seminar on Jewish migration to Germany at Humboldt University. Developed and taught with Dr. Agnieszka Pufelska, a colleague and friend from the University of Potsdam, this course allowed me to compile and share what I have learned (and am still learning) about the Jewish experience in Germany. Our international group of students journeyed with us through turbulent chapters of history from the late 19th century until today, and delved into difficult topics such as right and left-wing contemporary anti-Semitism and the hazards of child-bearing in Displaced Persons camps after WWII. We look forward to offering this seminar again, both at Humboldt and other universities.

Now it’s time for a summer break and a chance to hang out on the beach with my family in Sardinia. But it won’t be long before I begin my next new assignment, teaching for the Council on International Educational Exchange’s new Global Institute Berlin.

HTW photo courtesy of Avery Swarthout

Europe’s Evolving Jewish Diaspora

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220px-Spiezer_Chronik_Jan_Hus_1485Despite the much acclaimed resurgence of Jewish life in Europe in recent decades, the Pew Research Center and others have documented a continued decline in Europe’s Jewish population since the Holocaust ended. Researchers expect this trend to continue. A recent Pew study projected that by 2050 Europe’s share of the global Jewish population will decline from the current ten percent to less than eight percent.

With European Jewry often overshadowed by the voices and perspectives of Jews in the U.S. and Israel, European Jews have launched numerous organizations and initiatives to strengthen their communal ties. One positive development for the future of Europe’s Jewish community was Spain’s announcement this week that it has created a path to citizenship for the descendants of Jews expelled during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

Yes, that’s right. Those who can trace their Jewish heritage more than five centuries back to Spain, and pass a Spanish language and culture test, can submit their citizenship applications as of October. The Spanish government estimates 90,000 people will apply for citizenship during its initial three year window for applications. This news came coincidentally at the same time my sister and I had begun researching a claim our mother often made while we were growing up, that her ancestors came from Spain. If I brush up on my beginner Spanish and plan to spend some time on the Costa Brava this summer, perhaps I’ll even qualify for Spanish citizenship.

The number of new Spanish Jewish citizens is likely to be quite small and those who do receive their citizenship may have no plans to move to Spain. But just as Germany’s Jewish community is becoming more diverse, so will the European Jewish diaspora. A larger Sephardic Jewish population in Europe will strengthen and enrich European Jewish life. I hope it will also help to broaden the outlook of some German Jewish institutions on what it means to be Jewish.

Shabbat Shalom Yolanda

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304px-Statue_Nachodstr_(Wilmd)_Yolanda_Miriam_Lenk_2003_6A few Friday nights had come and gone without our usual ritual of lighting the sabbath candles. There was no particular reason other than the tired inertia that the family slips into at the end of the week. We forgo the chance to renew ourselves when we are the most in need, separated in space rather than united in Heschel’s sanctity of time. But last night we brought the sabbath light back into our home.

Stuffed with Mexican food, we took an after-dinner stroll from Wittenberg Platz to Viktoria Luise Platz before heading home. As big as she is, I didn’t notice Yolanda at first because it was dark out and she is tucked back into a corner. There she stands in all of her bronze glory and waits for the passerby to behold her. I was entranced by her size and strength, her uninhibited stance, and her defiance of societal standards of beauty. I stood before her and felt uplifted, while the three male members of my family quickly lost interest and moved on.

We took the U-Bahn home and lit the candles, and I thought about Yolanda, a woman of Berlin, maybe even a Jewish woman, a woman to represent all women.

May Day

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It felt more like Mardi Gras than Labor Day in Berlin. With all of the partying going on, I was too distracted to focus on the political and social messages of the day. We merged with the festivities as soon as we boarded the U12 and headed into Kreuzberg with all the beer and wine guzzlers who were a few decades younger than us. Our destination was the MyFest, an annual event to celebrate Spring with enough food, music, and cultural offerings to put even the most dour Berliners in a happy state of mind.

MyFestSqueezing our way through the crowds at Kottbusser Tor, we were expecting to come across at least one of Berlin’s typical protest scenes. But although the area was the site of May Day violence and riots in the 1980s, the MyFest is now mostly a hotbed of communal fun. Relieved at the absence of tension in the air, we settled in to enjoy some great köfte and Turkish music at Mariannenplatz.

posterDespite the holiday, it was soon time to head back home so I could do some afternoon reading for my seminar on Jewish migration to Germany. During our Rückfahrt (return trip), I was pleasantly surprised to come across this new poster at the Zoologischer Garten train station. Angela Merkel is asking our society to recognize immigration as an opportunity. This was a fitting message for Labor Day, especially given Germany’s looming population decline and the particularly strong fall in the proportion of working-age people expected by Germany’s statistics office. I look forward to discussing the poster with our seminar students on Monday.

Flipping the Jewish Narrative

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pesach2Despite a resolution to spend Passover in Berlin this year, a decline in my mother’s health caused us to schlep the kids across the Atlantic for a family vacation in Los Angeles. We missed celebrating our freedom with Ohel Hachidusch, but enjoyed the community seder at my mom’s current residence, Sunrise Senior Living in Studio City. When Rabbi Mitzi asked if any of the residents wanted to share a personal liberation story, there was no response. I’m not sure if the residents felt too enslaved by their circumstances to think of one or if they just wanted to move on to the beef brisket that was about to be served. During the long silence, my kids all looked at me, waiting to see if their mom would seize yet another opportunity to talk of reclaiming our Jewish roots in Germany. To the family’s relief, I decided to keep quiet.

But while I’m here I do have a chance to tell people of my frustration with the chorus of Jewish American voices calling for the Jews to flee Europe just as they fled from Egypt long ago. These pundits have such an easy fix for the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, never mind the fact that the Anti-Defamation League found a 21 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the U.S. in 2014. I hope European Jews will support efforts to combat anti-Semitism in the U.S. instead of urging American Jews to run away from it.

I just picked up a copy of the Jewish Journal and was surprised to see publisher and editor-in-chief Rob Eshman proclaim “Let my people stay”! Based in L.A., Eshman was writing about the Jews of Europe and argued that we need to overcome our narrative of flight and instead ask the question: “What do European Jews need to do to stay?” Eshman’s more thoughtful perspective emphasizes using the tools we have to build alliances within and beyond our Jewish communities to fight all forms of extremism. I can’t think of a better message to advance the freedom that we celebrate on Passover.

Higher Ed: Ins and Outs

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A tiny ripple in the realm of American higher education occurred last week as a result of National Adjunct Walkout Day. Here in Berlin I felt a passing sense of solidarity with all those faculty who agitated for better terms of employment. Having endured close to fifteen years of sub-par working conditions as a Montana State University adjunct, I was cheered by the prospect of better pay, job security, and benefits for my colleagues back in Bozeman and the rest of the country.

huThe walkout day came at a time when I am preparing to walk back in to university teaching in Germany. I’ll be co-teaching a seminar at Humboldt University’s Berlin Perspectives program next semester. Since undergraduate education is free in Germany, I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that I’ll receive substantially less pay than what I earned as an adjunct in the States. That’s okay. The seminar is on Jewish migration to Germany, a topic I’m already deeply engaged with and eager to facilitate with a group of international students in Berlin. My co-instructor is a Jewish Studies professor who is giving me a crash course on Germany’s higher education system.

So far I’ve learned that attendance at classes is not mandatory and that students tend to come and go as they please. German professors seem to have a higher academic ladder to climb than their counterparts in the States, in many cases needing the habilitation, a process which can require doing something like a second dissertation. I’m still confused by German academic ranks and titles, but I do know that I’ll be a Lehrbeauftragter, a nice German word for an adjunct.

I’ll also soon find out what it’s like to teach at a German Hochschule. These higher education institutions are not high schools, but specialized colleges that offer vocational and technical degrees. Although I won’t earn as much as a German autoworker or an American adjunct, I’m looking forward to walking into my first classes.

Israelis and Berlin – A somewhat surprising love story

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Guest Submission by Eyal Roth

In recent years, Berlin has witnessed a rise in immigration from Israel. The numbers are not clear, but it’s estimated that about 15,000 Israelis are living in Berlin at this time. I am one of them.

In the last 15 years many Israelis began to visit Berlin as a travel destination. This emerging city, waking up from years of division, was an ideal place for young artists to work and play. Housing was cheap (sometimes free) and the general atmosphere was very liberal and accepting. It’s that atmosphere that also convinced many young Israelis to move to Berlin and start a life for themselves outside of Israel.

It’s important to say that living in Germany or even visiting it was considered a taboo in Israel for many years, what with its somewhat dark past. When I decided to move to Germany about four and a half years ago, I too was confronted with negative reactions from family and acquaintances. The most common question was “Why Germany?”

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Eyal on Kopfsteinstraße in Berlin

The first wave of Israelis moving to Berlin was mainly young, artistic and liberal. As time progressed, Germany as a whole and Berlin specifically gained more and more acceptance in the eyes of many Israelis. Berlin became a well visited tourist magnet and the taboo status greatly diminished.

After the first wave of artists, “other kinds” of Israelis with different professions and life style preferences also started moving to the city, composing what is now the Israeli community of Berlin. This trend has been amplified by the rising housing prices in Israel; many young Israelis deal with a constant battle with their rent and overdrafts. Some of them decide to leave Israel and find a more comfortable existence elsewhere. I too was faced with a similar situation after ending my bachelor’s degree at the University of Tel-Aviv: high rents, low prospects and what felt to me an unpleasant political atmosphere. Berlin seemed like the place to go, and so far with no regrets.

The new Israeli community has already begun to flourish in many ways: a new Hebrew library has been established, monthly “round table” meetings take place, and even a new Hebrew magazine by the name of “Spitz” is printed on a bimonthly basis. These are all facets of a growing Israeli existence in the city. Israeli names have also popped up all over the cultural scene, from musicians, to contemporary dancers and what not. Israelis are everywhere.

Taboo or not, the dark past of Berlin is not a distant shadow and it’s indeed something that the new Israeli immigrants have to deal with. They do it in many different ways: some with humor, some with art, and some with different commemoration projects. A few Israelis (such as myself) take part in historical research and offer educational tours of the city, allowing tourists from Israel and the rest of the world to learn about the city through Jewish (or rather – Israeli) eyes.

Only time will tell if the love story between Israelis and Berlin is a fading trend, but for now it’s quite an exciting one.

Eyal Roth (32) was born in Haifa, Israel. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.
He offers educational tours through Jewish Tours of Berlin.

Building Bridges through the Obermayer Awards

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The quest to learn your family history in the aftermath of a genocidal era such as the Holocaust requires help from others. Survivors and their descendants seek answers from many sources, ranging from government officials to village historians. My own family research brought me into contact with many dedicated people in Hesse to whom I will always be grateful. Before moving to Germany, I was not aware that there is a formal way to honor “Germans who have made outstanding voluntary contributions to preserving the memory of their local Jewish communities.” It’s been done almost every year since 2000 through the Obermayer German Jewish History Awards.

obermayer2Long-term correspondence with one of my blog readers brought about the opportunity to attend the 2015 Obermayer Awards. He had written to me on numerous occasions about Jörg Kap’s dedicated efforts to commemorate the Jewish community that once lived in Arnstadt, Thuringia. He first nominated Jörg for the Obermayer Award in 2007, but it wasn’t until he was joined by fifteen other nominators from around the world this year, that the jury selected Jörg for this distinguished honor. As Jörg Kaps presented his extensive efforts to preserve the memory of Arnstadt’s Jewish families, I had a sense of what his volunteer work meant to the descendant of one such family.

Jörg Kaps and this year’s four other Obermayer Award winners are just some of the non-Jewish Germans who have helped to reclaim and rebuild a part of Germany’s history and culture that was all but obliterated. Their publications, restorations, art works, exhibits, tours, lectures, and more are a significant part of Germany’s ongoing reconciliation efforts.

Lately, we hear a lot more from the media about threats to the future of Jewish life in Germany and the rest of Europe than we do about positive signs for the future. I’ve offered my own perspective on trends affecting Jewish life in Europe in a new article for Tikkun Daily: Jewish in Europe: Another Perspective.

18,000 Quiet Voices

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It’s not often that our teenagers accompany us on a Sunday afternoon outing in Berlin. But today was different. Today we joined thousands of Berliners at Pariser Platz to remember the victims of last week’s terror attacks in France. As we were absorbed into the quiet calm that enveloped the massive crowd, my angst about bringing our children to the gathering quickly evaporated. There were no speeches, no clashes, no countervailing forces to thwart the simple expressions of sympathy and unity. The signs, pens, flowers and candles that were held high spoke louder than any voice that might have come from a podium.

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Olivia, who is 15, had these thoughts: The winter air was frigid as a group of Berliners came together before the French embassy, their numbers swelling to 18 000 despite the cold. They assembled out of a sense of fraternity and empathy for the lives lost in the recent attack and to make their message clear: that freedom of the press, a basic right in all democratic countries, will not be infringed upon. Although the gathering was calm, quiet even, the air of solemnity only served to underscore the importance of the support for Charlie Hebdo, and of recognizing that acts of terror like that against the French newspaper are dangerous to everyone everywhere, as the right to one’s own opinions and the expression of them is a fundamental human right.

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Photos courtesy of Avery Swarthout. Find more of his photos on Instagram @through_golden_eyes.

Trading Rights for Privileges

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Were there more tragedies around the world this year than in most years? It feels that way, as if the tempo of human cruelty grew at a steady pace throughout the year that wrung every last ounce of shock and sorrow from us. One tragedy that hit me especially hard as a Montanan living in Germany was the death of Diren Dede, a German exchange student who was shot and killed in April for trespassing in a Missoula man’s garage. The vigilante act of one Montana homeowner destroyed a family and gave the world one more display of the ugly face of America’s gun culture.

Markus Kaarma, the man who shot and killed Dede, was found guilty of deliberate homicide last week, a verdict that brought relief and a sense of justice to many. A jury agreed that there are limits to what are considered reasonable acts of self defense under the “stand-your-ground” and “Castle Doctrine” laws that have proliferated throughout the U.S. But the verdict in Kaarma’s trial will do little to change a culture that perpetuates gun rights as a sacred part of individual liberty. When the Montana State Legislature convenes next month, it will consider further expansions of gun rights, including “a bill that would prevent state-run universities from banning firearms on campus, [and] a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in cities and towns without a permit.”

I gave up my right to own a gun when I moved from Montana to Germany, a country where gun ownership is a privilege rather than a right. The chance that one of my children will be shot to death is lower in Germany than in the States. NPR Berlin reported last year that while Germany has a relatively high rate of gun ownership, it also has a low rate of gun homicides compared to the U.S. One reason is that gun ownership in Germany must be justified as “necessary,” and personal protection or self-defense do not count for this purpose. Germany also requires owners to store guns in a locked safe and allows law enforcement to make random house checks for compliance.

Diren Dede’s parents said their son described Missoula as a paradise. That’s how my children describe the state that they are so proud to call home. We express our sorrow along with many others in Montana, Germany, and elsewhere. The tragedy that struck this German exchange student in paradise shows why I’m willing to give up one of my civil rights for the privilege of living in a more secure society.

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