In 1980, AJC and the KAS initiated the first exchange program between Germany and the American Jewish community to build understanding through personal encounters. The program began at a time when German-Jewish relations, in the shadow of the Holocaust, were still tense, with few available platforms to build mutual understanding. To date, more than 800 American Jewish leaders and German policymakers have participated, visiting their respective countries and engaging in discussions about modern Germany, U.S. politics, and Jewish life.
This year I was invited to attend this Konrad Adenauer Exchange program. The trip began at 3:00 pm in a meeting room at our hotel in Munich. The participants include a group of 10 lay leaders who were selected from over 100 nominees and clearly include some exceptional individuals with an array of experiences with AJC, travel, and professionally. We introduced ourselves and met Ingrid Garwels of the Konrad Adenauer Exchange who is accompanying us on our trip. We also met our interpreter Volker Raatz.
On the first day we visited Congregation Beth Shalom of the "Liberal Jewish Community of Munich". This is essentially what we would call Conservative temple in the United States. The congregation president, Dr. Jan Muhlstein, and Rabbi Tom Kucera led a discussion along with a number of congregants from Germany, the USA, and the former Soviet Union. We learned about the unique and challenging position of this non-orthodox congregation in Germany.
Highlights of the discussion were:
The congregation was founded 20 years ago with 80 members. They are now at 400. They have three Torahs that were saved by a gentile during the Shoah and given to a Jewish resident when he returned after the war.
Dr. Muhlstein said that in the Shoah, "people were lost, but the idea (Judaism) was not lost." And so they are pleased to continue practicing this idea in Germany.
They have had some issues establishing their place in Jewish community alongside the orthodox organizations that currently dominate Germany. They are mostly self-funded, and do not get all the government funds they could receive because the members do not feel comfortable, for historical reasons, registering as Jewish citizens.
They have good relations with local Catholic and Protestant organizations in Munich, and are starting to form relations with some Muslims including one Muslim leader trying to build a reformed/liberal mosque in the area.
The synagogue supports interfaith marriages, allowing non-Jews to be members but not vote on meaningful matters.
They have asked us to obtain more support for the Liberal Jewish community when we meet with the German Minister of Interior.
Reaching all the Jewish asylum seekers from the former Soviet Union is a challenge because they were dispersed all around Germany instead of being allowed to settle in one central location.
Beth Shalom relates to Israel with a number of initiatives: Netzah youth trips (like NYFTE in the US) Birthright trips, annual public Israel Day Rally, support of Israel during the 2014 Gaza War, and relations with the Israeli Consul General.
The congregation is divided left-right on Israeli political issues, so they try not to discuss this before Shabbat services which then get "ruined".
Regarding the Shoah, they have one survivor and many more with direct connections to the Shoah. They face the challenge of teaching the Shoah in new ways so they are not repetitive from year to year, and to focus on having people remember but not blame the current Germans.
Anti-Semitism is a reality. They must have a police security outside their building as well as many other precautions. It is unfortunately getting more socially acceptable to openly display anti-Semitism, especially by Arab residents and attacks on facebook.
Every year for the past 11 years the AJC Central New Jersey Region brings a group of Princeton Theological Seminary Students on a day trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. This year’s trip included 23 amazing students from all over the world including Canada, France, Malaysia, Uganda and Liberia, many of whom shared later that this was their first in depth exposure to the Holocaust.
Even as we struggle with "Holocaust fatigue", we are confronted by what we hoped would never again show its ugly head. Anti-Semitism should have burned itself out long ago, but increasingly, the winds have stirred the embers. Bringing the Jewish experience of the Holocaust directly to Princeton Theological Seminary students opens their minds and hearts to the realities of what it means to be a Jew in today's world. It provides the intellectual space for the students to ask, "Where was the church when this was unfolding?" It forces penetrating self-cross examination, wondering, "Where would I have been?" And more importantly, it leads to the central question, "Where do I stand now?" It is around this last question that meaningful dialogue can begin.
The bus ride home often gives rise to difficult questions. For instance, one student, not wanting to be labeled an anti-Semite, and struggling to give voice to the question, observed that Jewish power and influence appeared to be disproportionate in the USA. While the areas of Wall Street, Hollywood, the media and government were mentioned, the omission of the sciences and medicine, provided an opening to share what is at the core of being a Jew. In essence, we are each commanded to be the best that we can be given our unique endowments, to make the most of ourselves, to make a difference, and to contribute to society and civilization.
Leading this trip each year, and participating in the interfaith discussions which follow it, offer me the opportunity to make a difference, and to deepen understanding not only of the Holocaust but of what it is to be Jewish.