What I Learned by Returning to Friedrichsstadt
Last year, I was privileged to conduct the first Jewish service since 1938 in the northern German city of Friedrichsstadt. In the interim, to my joy, there have been several Jewish cultural and religious events in Friedrichsstadt, including the bat mitzvah of Laura Wendt, a young woman from Denmark, in a service led by my colleague, Rabiner Dr. Walter Rothschild.
Much credit for the “heavy lifting” necessary to replant Jewish life in this town belongs to Horst (Ephraim) and Rita (Devorah) Blunk, whom I first met in 2014 during adult education sessions and services that I conducted with Walter Joshua Pannbacker in Kiel, a full hour away from the Blunk’s home. To this day, I am inspired by their desire – and the activity that prompted it – to revitalize Jewish life in their home region.
During my drash (interpretation of a passage of Torah), I underlined the centrality of the teaching from Ki Teitzei, the week’s portion: Lo too-chal l’heet-ah-lame. You must not remain indifferent! Our tradition insists there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. When we see evil, we must do what we can to stop it.
In Germany, it was not only the desires of the few truly evil leaders, but also the failure of the many to uphold that cardinal ideal that allowed the Holocaust to happen. In my remarks, I made clear it clear that although we cannot undo the past, the future is ours to shape. We can learn from the errors of the past and make a better world for future generations to inherit.
As I led services in a synagogue that had been commandeered as headquarters for Nazi officers, I was reminded of a story Rabbi Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, z’l, told when he was dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, before he went on to become president of the Reform Movement’s four-campus seminary. Recalling a trip he took to Rome, Gottschalk described his feeling as he stood beneath the famous Arch of Titus, which includes this inscription from the year 70 C.E.: Judaea capta. Translated as “Judaea is captured,” implying that Judaism is no more, the inscription prompted Gottschalk to proclaim with pride, “Here I am Titus! Where are you and your empire now?!” As I remembered Gottschalk’s words, I said to myself in a similar vein in Friedrichsstadt, “Here we are, Hitler. Where are you and your empire now?!”
My wife Vickie and I are excited to be back – delighted that with so much Jewish cultural activity now in Friedrichsstadt, this year’s worship will lack some of the novel feel of last year’s gathering. This is a good thing! Nonetheless, leading services here again this year is a small but meaningful step that we believe will help create vibrant, lively progressive Jewish life that once again will become part of established German culture.