The Face of Germany’s Far Right


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petryWhat kind of mother kisses her kids goodbye and goes off to whip the masses into a xenophobic frenzy of opposition to Germany’s refugee policy? That was the question I pondered after reading the latest news stories about weekend clashes in Berlin between asylum activists and the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

At the helm of the AfD is Frauke Petry, a 41-year-old mother of four with a background as a chemist and businesswoman. I didn’t expect a key leader of Germany’s anti-migrant zealots to be a relatively young and attractive woman. She’s been compared to France’s Marine Le Pen and accused of appearing entirely reasonable while supporting the xenophobic far right. This is the face of right-wing extremism in Germany.

I guess the fact that she’s a mom pushed my buttons. I don’t suspect we’ll find her kids doing volunteer work at any refugee shelters or standing around any train stations with “Refugees Welcome” signs. Nor do I suspect that Petry talks to her kids about the moral implications of the refugee crisis or the studies which show that EU countries have the capacity to welcome a vastly larger share of refugees than they have been doing so far. Instead, she calls for stronger ties to Russia and more children for German families, hoping to inspire a new generation of German mothers who follow the AfD’s politics of hate.

The AfD began as an anti-Euro party that pushed for a “Grexit” from the euro. Now that the AfD has staked out a position on the far right as Germany’s anti-immigrant party, let’s hope it will soon make its own exit from Europe.

“We will manage,” says Merkel


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Signs of a refugee crisis are not readily apparent to an ordinary resident of Berlin. Traversing the city each day I hear the same mix of Russian, Turkish, English, German and Arabic that I’m used to hearing in this city that is Germany’s closest approximation to a melting pot. But the media reports that Germany is expected to receive more than one million asylum seekers this year and that fights are breaking out in Berlin’s central refugee registration center. Angela Merkel has assured the public that “we will manage”,  but opinion polls tell us that many Germans are not convinced.

Fehrbelliner_Platz_4_Berlin-WilmersdorfI didn’t know whether to expect chaos or calm before my first volunteer shift at the refugee center in Rathaus Wilmersdorf this week. On earlier trips past the building I’d seen few signs of the hundreds of refugees given temporary shelter there. It seemed like one of Berlin’s many historical twists of fate that someone who fled Syria or Afghanistan would survive the trip to Germany and end up in a municipal office building that was a vestige of the Nazi era.

The four hours I spent inside the building confirmed everything I’ve read about why refugees have made Germany their first choice destination. More than 800 people are living in a clean and well-organized environment where they have access to medical care, regular meals, and vast supplies of clothing and other essentials. Abundant volunteers help out in all areas of the building and provide translation services in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu. Berliners bring a steady stream of supplies to the donation drop-off point. My very limited exposure to Berlin’s refugee relief measures reassured me that the German traits of efficiency and hard work are in ample evidence (from Germans and non-Germans alike).

20151007_153834My tiny part in this mammoth relief effort took place in a glass enclosed Info-Point plastered with all kinds of brochures and flyers. Almost every resident who came to my window asked me for a SIM card or phone so they could call family members they’d left behind. It was hard to look them in the eye and say that I only had information, train tickets, and bottled water to distribute. I didn’t feel very useful, but I managed to answer some questions and help with a variety of small tasks. I also had a great vantage point for watching the little kids race around the hallways and the inner courtyard on mini bikes and scooters. Although no photography is allowed, I snapped a quick shot of Berlin’s newest transit brochure, one in which the German language is noticeably absent. I believe if we all try to help a little, “we will manage.”

Cruising into the New Year


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IMAG0663Our sweet beginning to the Jewish New Year came in the form of a nice set of wheels to cruise around Berlin on a Sunday afternoon. Berlin may have one of the best transit systems in the world, but that doesn’t mean my feet are happy at the end of a long day. I’m married to a man who doesn’t like cars, but he took pity on me with another birthday coming up and registered for DriveNow, one of Berlin’s carsharing services.

We picked up our Mini Cooper Countryman in Wilmersdorf after stopping at the Fehrbelliner Platz refugee center to make a donation of much needed train tickets. The atmosphere outside the shelter was calm and peaceful, giving no hint of the desperate hunt underway in Berlin and other cities to find more space to shelter the thousands of asylum seekers entering Germany. We support using the former Tempelhof airport as a temporary shelter. The facility has space for a few thousand people and would become one of Europe’s biggest refugee shelters if approved. It seems fitting for the site that was the staging ground for the Berlin airlift during the Cold War to once again become a locus of emergency relief.

Driving away from the refugee center and north towards Mitte to check out one of the city’s popular third wave coffee joints, I felt the most like a Berliner that I’ve ever felt. We are privileged to live and raise our children in this city at a time when Germany is opening its arms to people who have been forced to flee their homelands. As established Jewish residents of Berlin whose families were refugees in another era, we can offer help and understanding to asylum seekers who do not yet feel at home here. Germany may never be their Heimat, a term that has a much deeper meaning than “home”, but it offers the hope of a new beginning.

yaaasgarnetAt 31 cents a minute, I’m not sure how much driving we’ll be doing in the coming year, but fortunately there are many great ways to cruise around Berlin. While we’re on the move we hope to make small, ongoing contributions to help alleviate the refugee crisis. It’s easy to find ways that you can help out online. Shana Tova!

Digital artwork by Olivia Maude Swarthout

Obedience Exhibit at the JMB



Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)A disturbingly alluring devil, a ram that may intuit its imminent slaughter, and dancers entangled in a web of trust and rebellion are all elements of the Obedience (Gehorsam) exhibit at the Jewish Museum Berlin. The visitor is greeted by a seemingly endless Brady Bunch array of children who tell us that they are Isaac…or that they are Ishmael. Once you tear yourself away from the children, you embark on a journey through a series of rooms that dramatize the biblical story of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son. There’s still time to see this provocative exhibit before it closes on September 13th.

Your response to the multitude of sensations that await you in this 15-room display will probably depend on whatever issues of sacrifice, obedience and trust you face in your own life. As a secular Jew, my willingness to make sacrifices for my children comes before obedience to any higher authority. But have I made the right sacrifices, expected obedience at the right times for valid reasons, and earned the trust of my children? I wish I had an answer key because the first of our three children is just a year away from leaving the nest for college. How strong are the family bonds that have been woven over the past seventeen years and will they remain intact and even grow stronger when our children become adults?

The Obedience exhibit reminds us of the ways that we overlook and sacrifice children in modern times. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac has parallels in contemporary commands to fight wars, dominate people, and devote ourselves to causes that harm others. You may have a different take-away from this expansive multi-media installation, but it’s likely you will find the experience as stimulating as I did.

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



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.


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