Rabbis Come to Berlin on Program Seeking to Build U.s.-german Bridge

They may be used to answering tough questions, but few American rabbis have faced a room full of German teen-agers curious about everything from theology to politics.

“Why aren’t you wearing that cap?”

“What does it mean to be chosen, if one can decide to be Jewish?”

“I am amazed to see a female rabbi!”

“Why is there so much hate in the Mideast?”

Last week, three American rabbis answered these questions and more — with humor and toughness.

They were part of a group of 11 rabbis and one journalist who were on a weeklong visit organized by Bridge of Understanding, a German-based program that builds connections between American Jews and Germans.

It was one of some seven trips organized by Bridge annually. Recently, the program also sent a group of German Jewish leaders to Washington and New York.

“There are still a lot of misconceptions about Germany, and we would like to give the rabbis a chance to experience the country firsthand,” said Dagmar Weiler, 42, who founded Bridge in 1995.

“Our experience has been that the rabbis talk about their experiences in the synagogue. They are teachers in the best sense, and we want to reach them.”

For the second time, the group included school visits in its program, giving the visiting rabbis a chance to interact, dispel stereotypes and to feel that they have left a mark here rather than just going home with their own impressions.

“It has a ripple effect,” said Rabbi Ronald Brown of Temple Beth Am of New York. “These students tell their friends, and they tell their parents.”

During their trip, the rabbis also met with local Jewish leaders, politicians and Israeli Embassy representatives. They observed the Sabbath in Berlin and visited both the Jewish Museum here and a concentration camp memorial near the city.

For some, contact with students had the most profound effect.

On March 5, three rabbis of various stripes sat side-by-side in a sunlit classroom at the Evangelisches Gymnasium, a private Protestant school in Hermannswerder near Berlin.

No sooner had the rabbis introduced themselves, than the school bell chimed.

“So much for dialogue,” Brown said, pretending to leave. The students laughed. The ice was broken.

“Ask any question that’s on your mind,” he said.

“My question is very simple,” one student asked Brown. “Why don’t you wear such a cap?”

“I am a Reform rabbi, and I don’t wear a kipah all the time,” Brown explained. “I have one here,” he added, removing his skullcap from the inside pocket of his jacket.

“I wear mine most of the time,” said Rabbi Yaacov Rone, national director of the Synagogue and Rabbinic Division of State of Israel Bonds for the United States and Canada.

“I don’t take it to bed and I don’t take a shower with it on, and I don’t wear it when it might be dangerous for me.”

“In Berlin someone said to us, ‘I would not wear this around here — something might happen,’ ” Rone explained.

During the past year, there have been several attacks on Jews and on a synagogue in a section of Berlin where there are many Muslims of Arab and Turkish background.

“Doesn’t it go against tradition to have a female rabbi?” another student asked.

“There are more and more of us,” said Rabbi Judy Kummer, a Reconstructionist who heads the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.

Kummer added that “the first female rabbi was ordained here in Germany” — Regina Jonas, who was killed in Auschwitz.

When the bell rang again, the rabbis and students felt they were just getting started.

“I never came to Germany before. I couldn’t bring myself to come,” Rone told the students. “When the opportunity arose to come and speak to you, I was able to put aside some things that stopped me emotionally.”

“This is my fourth trip,” said Brown, whose parents were born in Germany and left before World War II. “I was raised never to buy anything German.”

He thanked the students for showing him another side of Germany.

Student Katrin Knopp, 17, said she had “had a lot of prejudice against America and now I have to change my opinion.”

Several students lingered and carried on the conversations until a teacher shooed them on their way to the next class.

Later, on the way to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the rabbis were uncharacteristically speechless.

“I expected to come to Germany and say Kaddish,” said Kummer, whose first trip to Germany was in 1983.

“Yes, there was destruction. But there is also hope for the future.”

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