Staci Bloch never imagined herself in Germany. “I don’t buy German products at home,” she said while on a guided tour of Scheunenviertel, Berlin’s Jewish neighborhood. “I don’t have a German coffee marker. My parents don’t German cars.”
But when Bloch, a student in Michigan, found out about a German government- sponsored program to visit the country, she considered the experience. After all, the only way she would come to Germany was if the trip was sponsored.
“My logic was if I was ever going to come to Germany it would be with a program like this because I didn’t ever see myself vacationing in Deutschland,” she said.
The program Bloch took part in this month was the brainchild of Werner Weidenfeld, a U.S. expert in the German Foreign Ministry. He thought that sponsoring trips for young Jewish Americans to Germany was a way to improve the country’s image.
The program began last year. This summer, six groups will travel across Germany. Bloch’s group, made up of Midwestern college students, is focusing on multiculturalism in Germany.
The American participants are chosen by Hillel, which plans the program with the German government and the Council on International Educational Exchange’s German offices.
“We weren’t asking people to come here and love Germany,” said Andrea Hoffman, a Hillel organizer and trip leader. “But we wanted people who would be open to the idea of coming here and exploring the culture and looking at things with open eyes.”
Hoffman added, “We’ll be speaking with Turks and Russians, people who’ve had a real hard time in this country.”
Most of the program’s participants have had no previous contact with Germans.
Bloch said speaking with ordinary Germans made her question her views.
“I’ve been totally thrown of kilter,” she said. “I find Germany a very pretty country. It’s very lush. It’s very unlike the pictures I’ve seen. Now I’m at the point where I’m really confused about how I feel about Germany because I feel guilty that I like it.”
She added, “I’m the same person who three months ago would not buy a German coffee maker and here I’m having fun and I’m liking it.”
Edna Friedberg, a 23-year-old student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was the only participant who had a parent who survived the Holocaust.
Friedberg said she did not harbor anti-German feelings and had visited the country earlier to see non-Jewish German friends.
Friedberg, who plans to work as a Jewish educator, said she was struck by the contributions that German Jews had made to German life and culture, particularly before World War II.
“You can see all of the institutions that Jews built,” she said. “Where they lived and what they did. From the secular to observant, they were involved in life and thought of themselves as Germans. And then it’s just gone. To me that’s really what’s effective and disturbing.”
Julie Klepper, a 23-year-old medical student who is part of the program, said, “I probably wouldn’t come back here on my own. Maybe I’d come here in 20 years with my children. I definitely feel more comfortable being part of a group because of the Jewish history here.”