Shortly after we seated ourselves in the women’s section of the sanctuary, my daughter whispered to me that she felt she didn’t fit in here. By the time we left, she was eager to return. It was our first time attending Shabbat services at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue, which follows a musical tradition dating back to the mid-1800s in which the cantor is accompanied by organ music and a choir. As the sounds of the organ reverberated throughout the room, both Olivia and I felt a bit like we were part of a Christian rather than a Jewish service. The entire service was sung and the Hebrew melodies, by German composer Louis Lewandowski (1821 – 1894), were unlike anything we had heard at other synagogues in Berlin. Beautiful, yes, but so unfamiliar as to make me feel like an outsider too.
Sitting apart from the boys in our family also made the sabbath experience unique for us. We are a rather non-traditional Jewish family that generally avoids rituals that treat men and women differently. But Pestalozzistrasse calls itself a “liberal” synagogue, and although the men and women sit separately, the sanctuary is completely open so we could smile and make eye contact with my husband and sons. I loved sitting next to my daughter while surrounded by lots of Jewish ladies in interesting outfits. We often choose girls’ activities to do on our own so in a way this was just another chance for some quality girl time. Still, making our own choice to be separate is better than having someone else make that choice for us.
What I most appreciate is the range of opportunities to experience being Jewish in Berlin. We’ve attended four of the city’s numerous congregations since we moved here and each has offered up its own evidence of the vitality of Jewish life in Germany today. Even though we didn’t feel quite at home at Pestalozzistrasse, the music was moving and inspirational and touched our spirits on a cold winter’s sabbath night in Berlin.