4 congregations will share a new synagogue in the heart of Potsdam, Germany

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BERLIN — Germany’s president helped inaugurate a new, multi-denominational synagogue center in the city of Potsdam last week.

With a formal blessing delivered by Rabbi Avichai Apel, chair of Germany’s Orthodox Rabbinical Conference, the inauguration means that every state capital in Germany now has its own freestanding synagogue. Potsdam, just west of Berlin, is the capital of the state of Brandenburg.

Internationally, the city is perhaps best known for the Sanssouci Palace and the Babelsberg film studios. It is also home to the Glienicke Bridge, sometimes known as the “Bridge of Spies,” which was the site of prisoner exchanges during the Cold War. It is where Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky walked to his freedom in 1986.

More recently, Potsdam has become home to Germany’s Reform and Conservative rabbinical schools and School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, which inaugurated an egalitarian synagogue on its premises in 2021.

Now, in a move that is rare in Germany, this four-story, beige-brick building with arched windows will house a handful of congregations representing different shades of traditional Judaism. It will also be a center for social and cultural events that will be open to the public.  

Also unusual is that Brandenburg is partnering in this project with Germany’s Jewish social welfare organization, the Central Welfare Council of Jews in Germany (ZWST), rather than with the Central Council, the umbrella organization that administers most Jewish communal institutions.

The model means four congregations will no longer have to meet in scattered, improvised quarters — at least not every Shabbat. According to Ud Joffe, president of one of the congregations, the Synagogue Community of Potsdam, they will take turns using the new sanctuary. Joffe — conductor and artistic director of the New Chamber Orchestra in Potsdam — said in a telephone interview with JTA that so far, there are no claims on the space from more liberal Jewish groups, as there aren’t that many Reform or egalitarian Jews in Potsdam.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was among the featured guests at the July 4 unveiling of the new building on Schlossstrasse, a quick trip by commuter train from Berlin, and just down the street from the home of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. 

“It is a gift to us all,” Steinmeier said in his remarks at the dedication, which was attended by several other dignitaries. 

But first of all, it is a gift for the 600 or so Jews of Potsdam, said Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. In all, Brandenburg has about 2,000 Jewish residents.

Many migrated to Germany from elsewhere, he said. “They are members of a founding generation of Jewish life. The construction of this synagogue is for them,” he said.

The process of building the new center, from idea to realization, has taken more than 20 years and was fraught with misunderstandings and conflict that has not yet been resolved: Joffe told JTA he is suing Berlin architect Jost Haberlan over the latter’s claim to have designed the synagogue.  “He actually tried to say that I had no part in the whole process,” said Joffe.

There are also critics of the project. In a press release, a group called “Torah True Jews,” founded in 1999 in Brandenburg, called the center a “fake, state-owned, unity synagogue” promoting a “German ersatz Judaism.”

Over the years, some community members found fault with the post-war Jewish communal structure here. It is primarily shored up by state funds, in a form of reparations after the Holocaust. In one example, the Central Council of Jews in Germany receives about $24 million per year in federal funds to help support congregations, schools, youth programs and integration of new immigrants or refugees. There are currently about 90,000 registered members overall of Jewish communities in Germany, and perhaps the same number who are unaffiliated. 

Critics have said that financial dependency results in a kind of  infantilization.

On the other hand, the model of congregations sharing premises — especially where real-estate is hard to come by — has succeeded elsewhere. Overall, the infusion of federal and state funds has helped boost the variety and number of Jewish offerings across Germany.

The Potsdam building is a case study of that model. The cost of construction, about $19 million, was borne by the state of Brandenburg, which owns the building. The ZWST, meanwhile, serves as landlord for the congregations: The Jewish Community of Potsdam, the Synagogue Community of Potsdam, and two more recently founded groups — Congregation Adass Israel and Congregation Kehilat Israel. The state will provide annual funding to the tune of about $704,000 to the ZWST to run the center and its programs.

The synagogue is centrally located near the state parliament building. Potsdam’s original “Alte Synagoge” was desecrated in the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, and finally destroyed in Allied bombing raids towards the end of World War II. An apartment building was built on that site.

Jewish life in Germany exists in the shadow of the Holocaust, and to some observers, it is by definition “ersatz.” But participants in last week’s ceremony expressed feelings of hope, despite an increase in antisemitic incidents since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza.

 Speaking at the ceremony, ZWST President Abraham Lehrer said it was “up to all of us to ensure that this center can be open both within and to the outside world, as a beacon of hope for a better future, even if it must continue to be protected.”

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