Reform, Chabad grow in Berlin

Ribbon-cutting ceremony at new Szloma Albam House-Rohr Chabad Center in Berlin, a Jewish community center built with private donations from German Jews. (Toby Axelrod)

Ribbon-cutting ceremony at new Szloma Albam House-Rohr Chabad Center in Berlin, a Jewish community center built with private donations from German Jews. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN (JTA) – Nazi hooligans set fire to the Rykestrasse Synagogue 69 years ago, but the shul was saved when neighbors extinguished the fire to protect their homes.

Now there’s a new glow in the magnificent 104-year-old synagogue, which recently underwent a $7 million restoration.

This bastion of liberal Judaism was rededicated last week, and a few days later more than 1,000 guests turned out to stomp their feet and wave their arms to the tunes of Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza.

“Can you see the smoke?” one man asked with a grin after Broza held up his guitar and shook out the last few notes of a song.

Behind Broza, the new bimah was aglow in purple and red, and stars winked from the deep blue of the vaulted ceiling over the choir’s gallery.

The event, a highlight of Berlin’s 21st annual Jewish Cultural Festival, underscored the fact that there’s much for Jews to celebrate in Germany today despite the dark past here.

Over one weekend, two keystones of Jewish life here were dedicated: The Rykestrasse Synagogue was reborn in eastern Berlin, complete with an organ, choir and fabulous interior with Moorish and Romanesque detail.

A few days later across town, some 1,000 people turned out for the opening of the new Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue and educational center located in a building that once belonged to an electric company.

“We’re in the business of bringing light to the world, too,” Chabad Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal said he told the executives of the electric company when he was trying to convince them to sell him the building.

With its ultra-modern architecture, including a women’s gallery that seems to float above the sanctuary, the Szloma Albam House-Rohr Chabad Center represents a revolution in Germany’s postwar Jewish community: It’s the first Jewish community center here to be built virtually entirely with private donations.

The center cost nearly $7 million.

Teichtal said he plans for the facility to become a locus of prayer, learning and celebration, including a yeshiva program where community members will be able to study one-on-one with experienced scholars.

Since his arrival in Berlin 11 years ago, Teichtal has started a Chabad kindergarten, elementary school and summer camps. He and his wife, Leah, also have had five children here.

Thanks in large part to the influx of Soviet Jews beginning in 1990, Germany now has some 120,000 Jews.

At the Chabad celebration Sept. 2, which drew political and religious leaders from throughout Berlin, Chasidic musical superstar Avraham Fried performed wild guitar licks in a tent at the far end of the Muensterche Strasse cul de sac.

“It’s a sign of real Jewish life here and I hope it will continue,” said Alexander Brenner, former president of the Berlin Jewish community. Nevertheless, he added, “I am skeptical about the future of Jewish life in Germany.”

“After the tragedy” of the Holocaust, he explained, “it’s always good to be skeptical.”

Pedro Donig, a major donor to the new center, said one does not have to be kosher to love Chabad. He said Teichtal “lassoed” him 10 years ago, when at an expensive lunch the rabbi told him, “Pedro, we have to create Jewish life in Berlin again. Every Jew should be a Jew. But my success can only happen if I have the help of hundreds and thousands of people like you.”

The names of Donig’s parents, father and grandfather now grace the new mikvah at the Chabad center.

Back on Rykestrasse, Rita Rubinstein, 85, came to Berlin from Israel because she wanted to see the rededication of the synagogue where her parents were married in 1905. Her parents, who had 15 children, fled the country for Palestine after one of the children was murdered by the Nazis in 1936.

“It was impossible to live here,” said Rubinstein, who was in Germany for the first time since 1936.

On Friday night, Rubinstein lit the Sabbath candles in the sanctuary where she and her family used to pray. She recalled the day she saw Regina Jonas, the first woman ordained, there.

“They did not want to let her lead the prayers. It was not correct,” Rubinstein said.

At the end of the Broza concert, the musician turned and bowed in the direction of the holy ark, then waved good night. The guests then filed out, crossing again through the courtyard illuminated by window lights from the same apartments whose occupants witnessed those fires 69 years ago.

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