From Berlin To Mumbai: Love Among The Ruins


After the tumult and shouting, there was death in the silence. Mops washed blood off linoleum. To know a foreign country you have to smell it, said Kipling, who knew India well, and Mumbai had the smell of smoke and fear, said survivors. It was the stench akin to New York’s Ground Zero, when army gurneys rolled in the night and Lower Manhattan smelled like a foreign country. It’s a smell still hanging over Berlin.

In the wake of India, can the institutional cousins of the Mumbai Chabad ever again maintain their homey openness? A walk through Berlin might be instructive. In Berlin’s good times, synagogues were built with facing and entrances right up upon the city sidewalks; in bad times, synagogues were entered roundabout,
through alleys, behind a wall.

On 9/11, I was in Berlin, the old Jewish Ground Zero. Germans stood in a moment of silence, in solidarity, in my hotel lobby. Black mourning crepe was hung on the Brandenburg Gate. Flowers and votive candles were placed outside the American embassy. There were no international flights to the United States, and six flightless days after 9/11 was Rosh HaShanah. Stranded American Jews were scrambling for a shul, a holiday meal, an escape from the loneliness of a solitary holiday.

Of all the stranded Jews in Berlin that I’d become acquainted with, not one was a chasid and yet not one didn’t doubt that if we could find the Chabad we’d be less spiritually homeless than we feared.

Richard McBee, a reviewer and painter of Jewish art, was in Berlin that Rosh HaShanah. “Considering the emotions,” he says, “Chabad was a life saver. They were sweethearts, the rabbi and rebbetzin [Yehuda and Leah Tiechtel]. When I heard the news from Mumbai, I was much more affected than I would have imagined. I felt like I lost friends, only because I’ve gotten to know young Chabad couples when I’ve traveled.”

The Berlin Chabad was, at the time, in a small house in a leafy residential neighborhood. You had to know the address or you’d never find it.

Harriet Mandel, who today is director of the B’nai B’rith International Global Roundtable, bringing together young Jews with young diplomats from the United Nations and diplomatic missions, was in Berlin that week with her husband, Dr. Harvey Mandel.

They’d been going to the Joachimstrasse shul, an old and ornate ballroom first used as a synagogue after Kristallnacht, when no other shuls could be had. The shul is not evident from the street, other than the armored police car parked outside the obscure door. One enters through a dim hallway, through a metal detector, then a pat-down by a guard. And that was before 9/11.

Rabbi Tiechtel sometimes attended Joachimstrasse, in those days, where the Mandels met him casually before they were stranded. After 9/11, recalls Mandel, “he got in touch with us, inviting us for shul and meals over Rosh HaShanah. It was his initiative, not ours. It struck me, his sensitivity” to think that there might Jews who couldn’t get flights to the States.

Other Berlin Jews were perfectly nice, says Mandel, “but Rabbi Tiechtel’s offer was unique. Well, that’s Chabad.”

Around the Tiechtel’s Rosh HaShanah table, along with the Modern Orthodox Mandels, was quite an un-Orthodox aggregation: a European film producer; new immigrants to Germany from the former Soviet Union; young “Eurotrash” in black turtlenecks; “people who didn’t seem to have much of a Jewish background, or a Jewish place to go,” recalls Mandel, “but we were all together in the Tiechtel’s apartment for a Rosh HaShanah experience.”

Mandel says, “I’ve never felt with Chabad that there were any expectations, any agenda. Instead there’s an extraordinary dynamic, highly personal, and up to you to make of it what you will.”

In those days after 9/11, Berliner Irene Runge told me about those post-war years, when there were “no men,” too many were dead or prisoners or suicides; no trees, the branches cut for firewood in cold winters; no visitors, when the Berlin Wall inflicted isolation; but somehow there was a stranger from Chabad. Runge had never heard of Chabad. She said the stranger came to help the Jews of East Berlin be Jews. Runge remembers he was sent by a rebbe from Brooklyn.

In 1996, the Tiechtels arrived as the rebbe’s shluchim (emissaries) to West Berlin, and later the united city.

Mandel says, “I vividly recall walking with Rabbi Tiechtel and one of his children,” down Kurfurstendamm, a wide, luxurious commercial boulevard, “and though the Tiechtels clearly looked like chasidm, no one stared. It was natural. We were perfectly comfortable.”

That was 2001. In 2007, neo-Nazis hurled a smoke bomb into the Chabad kindergarten and covered it with Nazi graffiti.

In November 2008, two men in a Mercedes swerved in front of Rabbi Tiechtel’s van. The Mercedes sharply braked, went into reverse toward the Chabad van, and from out of the Mercedes came a burning object that somehow extinguished itself.

Burning objects are smells that would make any country, particularly Germany, seem foreign, except Germany was Tiechtel’s home. He signed on for life. His Chabad has security now, like other Berlin shuls. Days later, the Tiechtels cut the ribbon for the new mikveh.

David Sable, vice chairman of Wunderman, an international network of advertising, marketing and consulting companies, says he loves going to Chabads all over Europe, and Hong Kong, Beijing and Thailand, too. Once, in Moscow, when his hotel was too far a walk from the Chabad, on Shabbat, the local emissary — without being asked — dropped off enough Shabbat food for Sable and plenty of guests, so Sable needn’t have Shabbat alone.

“The biggest joke,” says Sable, “is all these people who’ll tell you how anti-Chabad they are, right until they have to travel. Then they all call up, ‘Do you know if there’s a Chabad?’”

Will they now ask about security? Will Chabad shluchim think twice?

“They’d be foolish not to,” says Sable. “They were clearly a target. Who’d ever think that gentle people who do nothing but good deeds should be a target? It never occurred to me, I have to admit. I don’t think it’ll change Chabad in the least, but who isn’t thinking, Whoa, it’s time to be careful? Remember, the killers cased the Mumbai Chabad by visiting it, getting Chabad’s hospitality. They cased the place because they were able to, by Chabad’s own openness and kindness.”

Chabad, is the Jewish canary in the mine. If they can’t make it, how long for the rest of us?

“We have to figure out what this means for the future,” says Sable, “because a lot of people are counting on Chabad.”

He wondered, “If Chabad has metal detectors and 40 guards at the door, are people going to feel as comfortable?”

But the next time overseas, says Sable, “I’m going to Chabad.”