Germany Close Up

The Jewish News


Story and Photos by Julie Bagley and Avery Drongowski
Special to the Jewish News

The Well takes a group of young professionals to Germany to discover its Jewish history.

In late February, The Well, a Jewish community building, education and spirituality outreach initiative geared toward millennials, took 29 people to Germany to seek out its Jewish roots on a trip called “Germany Close Up” (GCU). Here are the photo highlights.

On the group’s second full day in Germany, we enjoyed a walking tour of Jewish Berlin-Mitte, once home to the city’s Jewish community. While there aren’t many visible remains of Jewish community in Berlin, in cities all across Germany and Europe, stolpersteine or “stumbling stones” commemorate victims of WWII. The brass stones, incorporated into the cobblestone of the winding streets and courtyards, name those who were deported and sent to labor or extermination camps throughout Europe. They sit outside of victims’ last freely chosen residence or place of work, and it is the responsibility of the current residents to do the research necessary to receive a stolpersteine. These stones provide a physical place for families of victims to visit and remember even though their homes and storefronts are no more. Today, Jewish Berlin-Mitte is packed with monuments, museums, shops and Jewish history. Pictured is German guide Anne Lepper.
One of the best-known landmarks of Germany, Brandenburg Gate is a symbol of European unity and peace as well as a reminder of a difficult past. The gate stands on the location that, historically, marked the city limits of Berlin and leads to the palace of the Prussian monarchs. During WWII, it became a symbol of Nazi power; and during the Cold War, it became a border crossing between East and West Berlin. Post reunification, it became the main site for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The gate has stood through vastly different eras of German history and, now, surrounding the plaza are a number of foreign embassies, government buildings and many tourists with selfie sticks!
The group’s walking tour, titled “Don’t Trust the Green Grass,” highlights the many open, grassy spaces in the city that appear unused and used to be important sites for Jewish Berliners. Visible in the green space right next to our hotel was the foundation of the first synagogue in Berlin. In this photo, the group visits what appears to be a lovely green park tucked away, but as visitors continue down the path, they see the headstone of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, which remains standing in a lonely corner of the space. Closed in 1827, the cemetery was destroyed and desecrated by the Nazis in 1943. A group of us paused to say Kaddish to remember those who were buried here. 
The second-largest city in Germany and one of Germany’s 16 states, Hamburg is home to Europe’s second-largest port. Here, trip participant Sarah Crane helps our guide hold up a map that orients the group to the beautiful city. Trip participant Daniel Stein reflects on Hamburg and Jewish Hamburg: “As part of the Germany Close Up Program, we had the opportunity to visit Hamburg, which was one of the major Jewish centers in pre-war Germany. As the tour included a walking tour through the Jewish quarters, it was not hard to recognize the significant presence Jews had on the city. Even though much of the Jewish life was lost during the World War, the resurgence of Jews in Germany could be felt and seen upon visiting the reconstructed Talmud-Thora-Schule, which is one of the fastest-growing synagogues/Jewish day schools in modern-day Germany. Seeing that growing community center was very empowering, and I am hopeful for the future of Jewish life in Germany.”
The group pauses by the Binnenalster for a quick photo before continuing on the tour. 
During free time in Hamburg, several GCU group members explored Hamburg’s rich culture and delicious international cuisine. 
The group poses in front of the Bundestag, the lower Parliament in Germany’s bicameral system. We had the chance to meet with the staffer of a member of Parliament who talked to us about the currently debated topics and answered our questions about the presence of right wing extremism in those debates. Later, we went to the Federal Foreign Office, where we met with the Deputy Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organizations. We were able to gain some insight into the ways the federal government approaches and supports the Jewish community in Germany and represents their interests abroad.
The Germany Close Up group was welcomed to the Fraenkelufer Synagogue, a 101-year-old synagogue in Berlin. It was the first congregation in Berlin to re-open after the war, with Erev Rosh Hashanah services taking place in 1946. A few years ago, the synagogue didn’t have enough people to create a minyan; but on this night, the sanctuary was full of locals and visitors alike. At dinner, we had a chance to get to know one another, share a bit about our respective communities, sing and break bread. It was an amazing opportunity to celebrate being Jewish in Berlin, and we were reminded that this public display of Judaism wasn’t safe in the not-so-recent past. Trip participant Alyah Al-Azem said, “It moved me to tears watching, listening and participating in Shabbat services in a place where Jews were never supposed to return.”
All good things must come to an end, including our wonderful GCU trip. As the group reflected on the week past and all we learned, we said goodbye to Shabbat and looked ahead to the week beginning with a brief Havdalah service in the GCU headquarters in Berlin.

Avery Drongowski is a program and engagement associate at The Well. Julie Bagley is a member of The Well’s Bucket List, volunteer leaders who are stoked about building vibrant, inclusive and meaningful Jewish community in Metro Detroit.

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