BERLIN, June 17 (JTA) — Just who are those funny-looking people and what goes on behind those wrought-iron gates with the Jewish star? Those are the kinds of questions it turns out that neighbors of the Rykerstrasse Synagogue and the Ronald S. Lauder Jewish school, housed together in former East Berlin, have been asking. They have seen kipah-clad young men coming out of the large, turn-of-the-century school building. They have heard the sounds of prayer and singing filtering out into Ryker Street. So on Sunday, the neighbors got some answers. For the first time, the school and synagogue opened their gates to the public for a miniature festival. Kosher wurst — sausages — were available, as were tours of the synagogue and the school. "We always thought it was a closed community," Christel, 40, said while having her first ever first kosher meal. She even got a tour of the school´s kosher kitchen, which has separate rooms for dairy and meat. "This was a good opportunity to look behind closed doors," she said. "We thought they´d rather we not come in," Arno, 33, said of the synagogue. "They don´t post the time of services outside, the way churches do, so we didn´t know anything about Shabbat." Now, he said, he knows he, too, can attend a Shabbat service at 7 p.m. on Friday nights in the summer, 6 p.m. in winter. The idea for the neighborhood party came from Wolfgang Thierse, the president, or speaker, of the German Bundestag and a leading member of the Social Democratic Party. Thierse happens to live only a few streets away. "I considered it important that the school and synagogue are not hidden," Thierse, who is not Jewish, told JTA. "People think it is strange and closed. They only see that there are police in front of the door. This way, we get rid of their fears and build a connection," he said. "It is a very good idea," Alexander Brenner, president of the Jewish community in Berlin, said, adding that the Lauder school is a model of integration in a country that is grappling with immigration issues. "Here they have Russian Jewish students who had no idea two years ago what being Jewish meant. Here, they discover daily Judaism," Brenner said. "I hope this is an example to other Jewish institutions in this city and, generally, in Germany and Europe," said Rabbi Josh Spinner, director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in Berlin, whose yeshiva has 19 full-time students and 35 weekend students. The school also services dozens of Berlin Jews who attend classes there. The Lauder Foundation also has programs in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Koln, Leipzig and Wuerzburg. Despite the need for security, Spinner said, it is possible to "create understanding and friendship." Ironically, he said the only neighbor who openly objected to the party was an Israeli who complained about noisy prayer services. On the summery Sunday afternoon of the party, neighborhood families lined up for a quick security check at the synagogue entrance. Children bounced on a giant inflated trampoline and watched a puppet show. Some adults mingled with the yeshiva students, asking questions. Each time the doors opened for another tour of the synagogue, guests surged forward. "People didn´t trust themselves to come in," said Renate Israel, gabbai of the traditional Rykerstrasse Synagogue, who gave the tours. "They asked shyly, ‘May we come in here for services?´ " She told them that they were more than welcome but that large groups had to call in advance. Interest in Jewish life is high here among non-Jews, evinced by the record-breaking number of visitors to Berlin´s Jewish Museum and by the long lines of people who waited to get into Berlin´s synagogues on an open-house night in November 2002. Christel said she planned to come back, next time to experience a Sabbath service. She was less sure about the kosher wurst. "Those boys don´t know how to grill," she joked. "But it was delicious."
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.