So you’re going to Berlin and want to experience that vibrant Jewish life you’ve heard about? What should you know ahead of time? Since I’ve put out the call for American Jews to step inside the door of a transformed Germany, I feel obliged to point out a few caveats. Berlin’s Jewish community doesn’t focus much on American Jews. After all, the vast majority of the city’s Jewish population is from Russia and Eastern Europe and a substantial network of programs and services is geared towards this population. That is as it should be.
But as an American it can be daunting to get a foothold, let alone find a niche, in the Jewish community. It’s heavily guarded, leans conservative to Orthodox, and is tightly structured compared to American Jewish communities. A Jewish friend of mine ran into trouble at a Berlin synagogue’s security checkpoint when the guard asked for identification and saw that her husband’s first name was Christian. If she had not been able to speak Hebrew they might not have been allowed to attend services. When I sought assistance with my German citizenship application from the Jewish Community of Berlin, I discovered that there were people who could help me get on welfare but no one to help me have my citizenship restored. The beautiful monthly magazine Juedisches Berlin offers a gateway into the city’s Jewish life but only for those who speak German, Russian, or Hebrew. A multilingual Jewish publication of such significance could at least offer a few English entries!
As a European center for Jewish life, the Berlin Jewish community could do more outreach to show that it’s doors are open to the diaspora. The influx of Russian Jews to Germany has slowed; though integration challenges remain, the future will bring more diverse groups to experience Jewish life in Berlin. Nearly half of the global Jewish population resides in English-speaking countries. While I don’t mean to suggest that there are no resources for this population, the welcome mat could be a little more visible for them.