Behind the Headlines: Berlin’s Jews Celebrate Rebirth As Germany’s Reichstag Reopens

For most Germans, Monday was the day that the nation’s renovated Parliament building, the Reichstag, reopened as a gleaming, glass-domed symbol of democracy spun from the wreckage of Nazism.

The Parliament held its first session Monday in the renovated Reichstag, marking the return of the nation’s capital to Berlin.

But for the nation’s Jews, Monday had additional significance: The Central Council of Jews in Germany officially dedicated its new headquarters in Berlin.

And, in another part of town, work began on a new school for Jewish teachers sponsored by the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

The confluence of events, coupled with memories of war-torn Berlin more than a half-century ago, had Jewish leaders looking forward to a bright future for their community in the new capital.

As a mezuzah was nailed to the front door of the building housing the new offices of the Central Council, Ignatz Bubis, the group’s president, joined Rabbi Joel Berger, the national rabbi of Germany, in chanting prayers of thanks for having lived to see this day.

Later, speaking to invited guests and reporters inside the building, Bubis said the move was a “logical consequence” of the reunification of Germany and the move of the government from Bonn to Berlin. But he called it a coincidence that the Reichstag opened on the same day.

German President Roman Herzog said the new Jewish office “opens a new chapter in the postwar history of German Jewry.” And Berlin Mayor Eberhard Diepgen praised the move as a “sign that the Jewish community is blooming and thriving.”

Also moving into the building, known as the Leo Baeck House, were the Allgemeine Juedische Wochenzeitung, Germany’s Jewish newspaper, and the European Jewish Congress, of which Bubis also is president. It marked the first time that the EJC opened an office in Germany.

The building formerly housed the College for the Science of Judaism, shut down by the Nazis in 1942. The school boasted such illustrious teachers as Leo Baeck and Martin Buber, and such students as Solomon Schechter and Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Also on Monday, renovations began, in the former East Berlin, on the former Talmud Torah of the Rykestrasse Synagogue, which will house the new school for Jewish educators founded by the Lauder Foundation.

Joel Levy, the foundation’s chairman in Germany, and his wife, Carol, followed architect Alexander Lempert from room to dusty room, imagining them filled again with the sounds of learning.

“This is Jewish life looking backwards and forwards, all at once,” Levy said in a earlier interview.

He said the Nazis had shut down the Talmud Torah, but the synagogue was the only one in Berlin to survive the Third Reich intact. Today, services are held there regularly.

Last summer, Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski arrived from New York to begin teaching. Currently he has 14 students, who shuttle in from Hameln, Rostock and Cologne. Like Germany’s Jewish community at large, about half of the students are of Russian background.

Two young American Orthodox rabbis — New Yorkers Josh Spinner and Binyamin Krauss — are scheduled to join Rozwaski this year.

“We are making a statement of confidence that there is a future here,” said Levy. “Jewish life is growing.”

It is, in fact, growing by leaps and bounds.

The trendy bagel shops, Israeli restaurants and klezmer concerts are only the outward trappings, reflections of consumer interest.

The real story is in the numbers: The German Jewish population has tripled to as many as 100,000 since Germany’s reunification in 1990, mainly due to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Berlin has the nation’s largest community, estimated at as many as 20,000.

Before 1933, Germany had some 500,000 Jews, about 175,000 of whom lived in Berlin.

Though the current community is a small fraction of what it was, Berlin today has seven active synagogues, a Lubavitch representative and a new egalitarian congregation.

The Jewish Museum recently opened, although there is nothing yet on display. Steven Spielberg’s “Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation” recently opened an office here; the American Jewish Committee has been here since the summer of 1997; and the Lauder foundation since 1966.

This week, Berlin was hosting the annual conference on Jews and Germany sponsored by the Bertelsmann Book Corporation. And in May, female rabbis and cantors from Europe and America will gather for a conference here, marking a revival of interest in liberal Judaism in the nation where the Reform movement was born.

In fact, Berlin boasted the first woman with a rabbinical title, Regina Jonas, who died in Auschwitz in 1944.

Germany’s dark past — particularly Berlin’s status as capital of Hitler’s planned “1,000-year Reich” — was in the air Monday, as legislators gathered for the symbolic first sitting in the renovated Reichstag.

Real business is slated to begin this summer, by which time some 20,000 government employees will have moved here from Bonn, capital of the former West Germany since 1949.

More than 100 years old, the Reichstag has been basically unused since it was destroyed by a suspicious fire after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor in 1933. It was further damaged during battles at the end of the war.

On Monday, the renovated Reichstag was the site of a protest by a small group of concentration camp survivors. They charged that Germans are too ready to forget the victims of Nazism. They also called for an end to NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia, which have involved German forces in combat for the first time since World War II.

Protest was an apt adornment, according to Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor.

Far from a symbol of Nazism, he said, the Reichstag was the “most democratic institution” in pre-Nazi Germany, “in which opposition, including Socialists, found a way to express themselves.

“The Nazis abhorred this building,” added Primor, who said the Israeli Embassy will move to Berlin this summer.

The Nazis didn’t like what went on in the building now known as the Leo Baeck House either, but that building, too, remains standing.

A Jewish star adorns the cream-colored exterior, and a carved lion’s head adorns the arched doorway.

The new mezuzah is quite possibly the only one in Berlin on the outside of a building, a police guard said. Like most other Jewish centers in Berlin, the building will have a round-the-clock guard.

The location is “doubly symbolic,” said Primor, who attended the building’s dedication, because of its past as a Jewish institute, and because of the historic importance of Berlin’s Jewish community.

“Above all,” Primor said, “it is important for Jews in Germany to be in contact with the federal authorities, and these are now in Berlin.”

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