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Around the Jewish World: Jewish, German Students Broaden Their Knowledge About One Another

The German student laughed with embarrassment. She had just guessed that there are half a million Jews in Germany.

“Actually, it is about 75,000,” said American student Leo Sorits, questionnaire in hand. “Don’t worry, I didn’t know the answer myself before today.”

Sorits, a 20-year-old junior at Brooklyn College, is one of some 17 Jewish students here on a trip designed to break down their stereotypes of Germany.

Planned by the Bridge of Understanding, a Munich-based organization, together with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the three-week journey is one of five this summer aimed at bringing American Jewish youth to a place they might otherwise never have visited.

“My bubbe was wondering why I would come here,” said Devorah Freilich, a 21- year-old student at Indiana University, referring to her grandmother. “I called her a couple of days ago and I said, `There’s actually Jewish life! It’s coming back!'” said Freilich, a member of the first Hillel group to arrive in Germany this summer.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat Germany,” said Dagmar Weiler, who has directed Bridge of Understanding since its inception five years ago. “I want to give them a first-hand impression, and it’s also OK if they go back with more questions.”

The program, which receives partial funding from the German Ministry of Economics, invites Hillel directors as chaperones and provides German guides. For the first two groups this year, the German guides were Esther Kohl and Miriam Daur, both of whom happen to have Jewish roots through their fathers.

Bridge of Understanding is one of several German-funded programs aimed at improving relations with Jews. For example, the German government invites American rabbis to design their own itinerary to visit Germany. In addition, Jews who fled Nazi Germany are invited back as guests of their former home towns, and there are exchanges for Holocaust educators.

It is critical to reach young adults, said Weiler, who is planning a program for young Jewish professionals and journalists with the help of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee.

“We have had some young people who were either scared or aggressively anti- German for a lot of reasons — good reasons. But at the end they said, `We may not come back next year but we have learned a lot.'”

The trips are about Germany trying to shake the Nazi image, said Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski, dean of the new Lauder Juedisches Lehrhaus, a school preparing Jewish teachers in Berlin that is funded by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

“Obviously, there is self-interest,” agreed Princeton University Hillel Director Rabbi James Diamond, who accompanied the second group. “But teshuvah,” or penitence, “is also about self-interest. You’ve got to love your neighbor as yourself, and nations are like people, just writ large.”

Though students did visit the memorials at the sites of the Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps, the trip did not focus solely on the past or on Jewish life today. Students spent a few days living with host families, experiencing a slice of everyday life. They met political representatives, Turkish students — and professors at a university in the former East Berlin.

The students were not shy. Harley Greenberg, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Arizona, challenged his host family on Germany’s laws. “My family said [the swastika is] an evil symbol. They are glad it is illegal,” Greenberg recalled. “But I said, `How can you call yourself a democratic nation if some things are forbidden?'”

The second group conducted a questionnaire designed by Gadi Gronich, director of European Hillel. Among the questions: “What is the population of Israel? Do you know any Jews? Should there be a Holocaust memorial in Berlin?”

“I wanted to bring them into discussion with people here, not just sit in a room,” said Gronich, who was born in Israel in 1960 and lives today in Munich.

Later, the students discussed their experience. “One guy asked me, `What is a Jew, is it someone with an Israeli passport?'” reported Yelena Shamalova, a 21- year-old student at Long Island University who wants to become a rabbi.

The population of Israel was estimated from 10 million to 25 million. (In reality, it is about 6 million.) “They seemed ashamed that they didn’t know” the real population figures for Israel or for German Jews, said Sharon Katkow, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

The Hillel directors on the trip said they found it enlightening.

The most uplifting experiences for the Americans seemed to be meetings with other young Jews. After a spirited Kabbalat Shabbat with German students in Berlin, some of the guests said they wished they could spend more time with Jewish peers.

Some did spend more time at services than they do at home. In Berlin, they had a choice of synagogues. But in Bochum or Luebeck, the Americans found themselves in the only synagogue, sitting alongside new Russian immigrants, and with an American rabbi leading the service.

The scenes expressed the reality of Jewish life in Germany today: an overwhelming number of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and a profound lack of rabbis and teachers to serve them. It is a situation Rozwaski hopes to remedy with a new generation of Jewish teachers.

Last Friday, Rozwaski invited the visiting students to attend Sabbath services at the small chapel of the Rykestrasse Synagogue. About a dozen showed up, increasing the attendance by a quarter. Later, they visited the main sanctuary, which survived the Holocaust nearly intact and today is used only for major holidays. There are places for some 2,000 worshipers.

The giant room with its vaulted ceiling proved a temptation to University of Maryland graduate Brian Shamash, 23, who plans to become a cantor. Given the go-ahead, Shamash stood at the pulpit, paused, and began to sing from the Yom Kippur liturgy. His baritone filled the empty space.

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