Berlin rabbi overcomes skepticism, Holocaust memories to lead school

BERLIN, Oct. 12 (JTA) — Rabbi Chaim Rozwaski lives with his wife, Roberta, in a colorful, busy section of eastern Berlin, on the edge of a wave of gentrification. It is a mixed neighborhood, but still it is unusual to see an obviously Jewish-looking person, with full white beard and hat, walking down the street. “Some Arab men at a restaurant outside saw me and asked, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I said, ‘Yes I am a Jew.’ “From Israel? “No, from America. “They couldn’t believe it. They asked me if Barak is going to be good. How should I know?” Another time, he heard someone standing near his vegetable market say “Jude,” or Jew, when he passed. “I was really shaken up. I never felt such a burning feeling in my life,” said Rozwaski, who survived the Holocaust in hiding with two siblings, an aunt and uncle. “I turned around and saw who the guy was. I stared him down and he ran into his house and I wrote down the number of the doorbell he rang.” Rozwaski, who came here last year from New York to serve as the dean for the new Lauder Judisches Lehrhaus, is not one to shy away from tough questions or encounters with anti-Semites. An energetic, compact man, he only avoids one question: “How old are you?” All he will say is that he was less than Bar Mitzvah age when he was brought by the Canadian Jewish Congress to Winnipeg after the war — one of 2,000 Jewish orphans brought over to Canada from Germany. Rozwaski does not remember much about his parents. “But my mother said someday I would be a rabbi, or something like that,” he recalled. He became one of several boys inspired by another survivor, Rabbi Abraham Kravitz in Winnipeg. “All of us are in the service of the Jewish people,” he said. He attended Hebrew Theological College and received his doctorate in talmudic law in Baltimore. He and his wife, Roberta, a native New Yorker, met in Brooklyn. They have six children and seven grandchildren. Since being ordained, Rozwaski has served congregations in Peekskill, N.Y., Orlando, Fla. and England. His last stop before coming to Germany was at Suburban Park Jewish Center-Congregation Lev Torah on Long Island, a traditional synagogue where he served for about seven years. He also was vice president of the multidenominational Long Island Board of Rabbis. “It was not easy to come to Germany,” he said told the group of American Hillel students during their recent visit here. “My family was killed by the Germans. I don’t like to use the word Nazi. At the time, it was Germans. It was really like a rabbit hunt. “I was always against Russian Jews coming here. I thought they should go to Israel. But two years ago my perception changed. Because it was not a question, it was a fact: There are Jews in Germany. Can I scoop them up and toss them out? They are here and growing.” When Ronald Lauder asked him to serve as dean of the school, Rozwaski asked three rabbis — the number required for a traditional Jewish court of law — what they thought. “They told me to come here because the motive was to build a school.” “Some of my friends smiled, they said ‘Good luck.’ But when I came back to visit their emotions were more on their sleeve. They were not at all happy. I have nothing against their attitudes at all. It is absolutely understandable.” Rozwaski asked the students why they thought Germany had co-sponsored their visit. “Germany is getting more than you are getting,” he explained, saying that the country is still trying to repair its postwar image as a pariah nation. Rozwaski identifies fully with the goals of Lauder to help create a new generation of Jewish teachers in Germany. “This man is single-handedly doing a lot for Jewish education and Jewish life in central Europe,” he said. “You can not rebuild the German Jewish life that was, but it is possible to build a new Jewish life from scratch.” His students this year, learning in temporary quarters, included a doctor of French language, an engineer, two teachers, an artist, a journalist and a management consultant, all of whom are motivated to go into Jewish education. The tuition is free, and they received a small stipend if they needed to overnight in Berlin. Rozwaski asked the Hillel students if they would consider settling here. “My perception of Germany before I came was that it was war-torn and anti-Semitic,” said one student. “I definitely see a much different picture now. I see a young community, and that’s inspiring.” Rozwaski is not shy. After being called “Jude” on the street, he went to local shopkeepers and asked them, “Are there anti-Semites in this neighborhood?” One person said, “Yes, because people are unemployed.” “I walked into a real estate office, and asked, ‘Is there anti-Semitism here?’ There were three people there. They were Chilean. One girl said, ‘What is anti-Semitism?’ “My job is very important,” Rozwaski said. “I hope we can make a lasting contribution to Jewish life.”

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