Fulbright Berlin Seminar, part one: Judaism

At approximately the middle of the grant period, all of the Fulbright students in Germany are invited to the Berlin Seminar. This is an annual meeting focused on sharing experiences and discussing important issues in Europe. The German grantees (including students, professors, teaching assistants, performers, and journalists) are joined by Fulbrighters from other countries (I noticed strong presences from Scandanavia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Italy) as well as German grantees who will soon leave for the States. We meet for seminars, discussion panels, and lots of eating and drinking.

The four-day seminar was very full, so I’m going to split my experiences into three blog posts: one focused on Judaism-related excursions, one focused on “networking” (the conference itself and the socializing surrounding it), and one focused on general tourism. This is the Judaism post.

On our second day in Berlin, we had the afternoon free. Some friends and I grabbed tickets for a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, and one place we stopped was the memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust. It’s a strange monument—unmarked stone rectangles (which look rather like tombs) rise from the ground, increasing in height. They’re slightly angled, and walking among them is intentionally disorienting.

The following day, we visited the old Jewish district. This is full of Stolpersteine—brass “stumbling stones” marking where Jews who were killed in the Holocaust used to live. Many Germany cities have them, but not Munich. (A member of my synagogue is actually currently working to bring them to Munich.) They’re supposed to serve as a memorial to the dead and a reminder to the living, but I didn’t see that last part working: except for a few tourists, everyone I observed simply walked over them.

Also in the district is the old Jewish cemetery. It was destroyed in 1943 by order of the Gestapo, but the plot still exists, and it houses a few gravestones that were recovered. Also in the cemetery is a recreation of the tombstone of Moses Mendelssohn. He first translated the Torah into German (in fact, we read from his translation in my synagogue during Schacharit). He was also a close friend of the famous playwright Lessing and served as the model for his character Nathan in Nathan the Wise.

Finally, we visited the “new synagogue,” which was built in the mid-nineteenth century. (Not so new any more!) It was badly damaged during the war and mostly demolished thereafter, but in the late 1980s the front portion of the building was reconstructed. Its Moorish dome is very striking and unusual for a synagogue.

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The building now hosts a small (reform) prayer area, various seminar rooms for Jewish events, and exhibits about the history of the synagogue. The most fascinating part was a section on Regina Jones, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi (in 1935). She was never really treated the same as the male rabbis—she was mostly given teaching-related work. But she also sometimes got to lecture at the synagogue (though never on Shabbat). When she was deported to Theresienstadt, she continued to work as a rabbi for other Jews in the concentration camp until she was moved to Auschwitz and murdered in 1944.

Obviously, the history of Jews in Berlin (and Germany in general) isn’t a happy one, but I found it encouraging that so much had been preserved or rebuilt. I didn’t make it to the Jewish Museum—supposedly full of very interesting exhibits and archives—but it tops my list of things to do if I ever return.

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