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At Christian Conference in Berlin, Jewish Topics Are Major Attraction

June 9, 2003
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It was standing room only at the lecture on Judaism — and professor Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich was in his element.

“The word ‘volk’ in German does not fit the Jewish concept of a people — it includes people who have a Jewish consciousness, from their parents, grandparents and from history,” Ehrlich, honorary president of B’nai B’rith Europe, explained to some 70 people, almost all of them Christian, who had crowded into a lecture room at Berlin’s Technical University for a mini-course on Judaism.

The course was part of the “Church Days Convention,” a massive, three-day conference with more than 3,200 events, organized by Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches.

Starting May 28, the convention turned Berlin into a virtual holy city, with lectures, services and workshops held in churches, universities and other public forums all over town. An estimated 200,000 “pilgrims” came from across Germany, easily spotted by their yellow scarves printed with the slogan “Blessed are they who bring peace.”

Instead of the usual techno music in the streets, the rich vibrations of organ music could be heard. One tourist even witnessed an impromptu Christian sing-along in a Berlin subway.

For many, programs on Jewish topics were a prime attraction. The event, which takes place every two years in different cities, included numerous offerings on Christian-Jewish and Christian-Muslim relations, presented by top figures in Germany’s Jewish cultural, political and educational scenes.

A featured guest from abroad was Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who spoke about relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians after Sept. 11.

At the mini-university on Judaism, coordinated by Albrecht Lohrbaecher, participants immersed themselves — however briefly — in basic Judaism, Jewish philosophy on war and peace, Jewish feminism and Mideast politics. There also were walking tours of the historic Jewish quarter of Berlin.

Presenters included Rabbi Yitzchak Ehrenberg of Berlin; Rabbi Andreas Nachama, a historian who heads the “Topography of Terror” archive and memorial in Berlin; and Hermann Simon, director of the Foundation Centrum Judaicum.

Many of the conference’s participants “normally have little or no contact with Jews,” said Iris Weiss, a member of Berlin’s Jewish community who has been involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue for more than 20 years Weiss said. “Here, they have the chance to get basic information from Jews about Judaism, and that’s quite good.”

Their motivations vary, she said. Many “recognize that they have a major deficit in their knowledge of Judaism” and want to expand their knowledge, said Weiss, who gives tours of Jewish sites in Berlin.

Others “are only interested in Judaism to the extent that they can ‘milk’ its connection to Christianity” and “some think if they understand Judaism better, they will understand how the Holocaust could have happened,” she said.

At Ehrlich’s first lecture, visitors took the chance to pose all the questions they might have been afraid to ask, such as: “Why don’t Jews do missionary work?” “How do you view messianic Jews?” And “Does it make sense for non-religious Jews outside Israel to remain Jewish?”

“Naturally it makes sense, because they have 2,000 years of history here,” responded Ehrlich, who lives with his wife, Sylvia, in Basel, Switzerland.

Ehrlich’s lecture received long applause from the crowd, and several participants stayed afterward to ask more questions.

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