Berlin’s promised land

Settlers from Israel are flocking to Charlottenburg, where they find synagogues, certified kosher shops and restaurants, a secure environment and many fellow Jews.

Image for Berlin's promised land

The Jewish congregation on Petalozzistraße is the most liberal of any at Charlottenburg’s five synagogues. Photo by Fridolin Freudfett (CC-BY-3.0)

Settlers from Israel are flocking to Charlottenburg, where they find synagogues, certified kosher shops and restaurants, a secure environment and many fellow Jews.

It’s a gloomy autumn Friday evening as we walk from Charlottenburg’s Savignyplatz S-Bahn station to the liberal congregation’s synagogue in Pestalozzistraße. The crowd gathered in front of the big red brick building for Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve) prayers lacks any of the trademarks you might associate with observant Jews: no hats, no sidelocks on men or wigs on married women, no down-to-the-chest beards. Once we pass through the police-guarded gates, a Romanesque-style building appears in the courtyard. The building was set on fire in 1938 during the November 9 Kristallnacht pogroms, but the blaze was extinguished before doing any damage. It even survived the bombings in 1943, and was the first synagogue to hold services after the end of WWII.

Inside, Rabbi Jonah Sievers – a clean-shaven German who’s been serving in Berlin for the past two years – enthusiastically welcomes his 100-strong congregation. About a dozen children are running around giggling as their parents cheerfully greet each other in a mix of German and Hebrew. Men slowly taking their places in the middle rows, while women sit on the sides and upstairs. A few Russians arrive, carrying their own prayer books; they seem to be only talking to each other. Russians, who make up the bulk of Berlin’s Jewish community, generally prefer Orthodox synagogues such as the Belarusian Chabad Lubavitch. Looking around, it’s clear that probably the only conservative thing about this place is that men and women don’t sit next to each other. Some are in jeans, women wear trousers and heavy make-up, a few type one last message on their phones while the choir starts singing upstairs, and the chattering doesn’t ever completely stop.

The synagogue on Pestalozzistraße uses an organ and a mixed choir to accompany the ceremony, with traditional 19th-century harmonies by the German Jewish composer Louis Lewandowski. The cantor, the choir and the crowd perform a call-and-response in Hebrew, singing melodies any Jew who’s been to temple would recognize, no matter where they’re from.

“This is the only synagogue I really like to come to,” says Roni Orev, a young Israeli who recently relocated to Berlin “I rarely went to synagogue in Tel Aviv, I wasn’t raised Orthodox at all, but somehow the choir and the organ give that really sacred mood. It’s like I’m in a Catholic church. I love it!”

Roni, like so many other Berlin Jews, lives in Charlottenburg, just off of Adenauerplatz in a WG with two other Israeli students. She doesn’t speak German, saying it’s easy to get by in Hebrew and English. Before she moved here last summer, she was told that this was the “most Jewish district” in Berlin. “I know the hip Jews move to Neukölln or Schöneberg, but I wanted to feel comfortable, and I do. I hear so much Hebrew and even Yiddish on these streets. I didn’t want to be judged or attacked for speaking it, or” – she air-quotes the words – “looking Jewish.” She’s referring to the incidents that occurred in 2012, when four men of Arabic descent badly beat up Rabbi Daniel Alter in Friedenau; and in 2014 when another Jewish person was attacked by two men as he was leaving a synagogue. Both were hugely hyped in the Israeli media. “I know things are supposed to be friendly by now, but safety comes first.”

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, founder and chairman of the Hasidic Chabad Lubavitch community in Berlin, couldn’t agree more. “Unfortunately, there are still areas in Berlin that I wouldn’t consider safe, and there definitely are challenges in living as an Orthodox Jew in Berlin. Even today, we face anti-Semitism.” To make the point, he went on a stroll down Sonnenallee with a reporter from Die Zeit to observe how passersby on the Muslim-dominant street reacted to his traditional Orthodox getup: long beard, suit, long black coat, black fedora. According to the much-debated article (“Unterwegsan der Front” by Mariam Lau), not well. But the New York-born rabbi cheerfully say she believes that education and respect are the keys to solving conflicts and problems.

For now, Charlottenburg is the place for him and his family, where they’re surrounded by a community they’ve done a lot to foster. Twenty-one years ago, he and his wife finally followed through on the advice they’d been given by the late Chabad-Lubavitch founder Menachem Mendel Schneerson: return to Teichtal’s German roots and bring the movement to Berlin.

“There has been a major change in Jewish life over the past decades,” Rabbi Teichtal says. “We have 800 people coming to our centre every week! People feel more comfortable with their Jewish identity again, and others come to see it. They are interested in our traditions, and our doors are open to everyone,” he stresses, assuring us that he sees no inequality between different denominations and inviting us to Chabad Lubavitch’s Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) event, where the congregation prepares over 1000 food packages to share with those in need.

Rabbi Teichtal confirms that Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf has always been a central location to Jewish life in Berlin. In the years before World War II, a large proportion of Berlin’s 170,000 Jews lived there. After 1945, the few Jews who had managed to hide out the war – less than 1500 – regrouped in Charlottenburg, where the Pestalozzistraße synagogue was still standing. Later, during the Cold War, Orthodox Jews flocked to the synagogue on Joachimsthaler Straße, which functioned as the headquarters of the official Judische Gemeinde (Jewish community) until it relocated to Mitte in 2006. When the Wall fell, thousands of Jews flooded in from former Soviet countries; these make up about 70 percent of Berlin’s current-day Jewish population.

Now home to 6000 out of the 11,000 members of the city’s active Jewish community, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf boasts five synagogues, three kosher shops and four kosher restaurants, along with Jewish kindergartens,schools and study centres – the new promised land for the growing Jewish population of Berlin. “It did play a big part in our decision when we looked at Berlin neighbourhoods, yes. We are a traditional Jewish family, and we wanted to continue living this way,” says Chana Steiner, who moved here from Beer Sheva a year and a half ago with her husband Avi. Both of their families have Russian backgrounds, but they wanted to leave for Germany. “Not Germany – Berlin!” laughs Steiner as she does her dinner shopping in the kosher grocery Best Oriental. Her eight month-old baby, Hadar, is sleeping strapped to her back. “We felt that there was no challenge in leading this kind of life in Israel: we gained nothing, we gave nothing. Here, I feel, we can contribute to the understanding of a culture, a religion that was almost wiped out of this country. We want to encourage others to not be afraid to be Jewish, but rather to celebrate it.”

Steiner, who is currently studying to become a kindergarten teacher, believes there is definitely a wave of people coming from Israel to Berlin. “In the past five years, I felt a big change. I felt like everyone was telling us how Israel was for the Jews but now we, the Jews living in our own land, have been leaving to look for our roots elsewhere, or find new homes. Since many Israeli families come from Germany, many Israelis will come back here, too, for their own history. And they will all come to Berlin. Because Berlin accepts everyone. And it’s colourful. And it’s affordable compared to Tel Aviv. For now, at least…”

As with the total number of Jews in Berlin – which Rabbi Teichtal estimates could be as high as 50,000 – the actual number of Israelis living here is hard to estimate. Adi Farjon, the spokesperson of the Israeli Embassy and a Charlottenburg resident herself, says it’s officially around 13,500, but since Israelis don’t need a visa for the first three months of their stay and many are eligible for EU citizenship, the number is probably much higher. We know for sure that between 2000 and 2016, 33,321 Israelis were granted German citizenship, most of whom had to give up their Israeli passports.“For love and for Berlin, I would do it, too!” laughs Roni at the Pestalozzistraße synagogue. Her mother’s family fled Germany right before the war and went on living in an Israeli kibbutz by the sea. She too is looking for her roots, she says. She wouldn’t mind finding a nice German boyfriend – but he’d have to be Jewish. “Otherwise, my parents would kill me.” She is not sure whether she’ll move back to Israel. “I don’t want my children to have to go to the army, frankly. And I wouldn’t mind becoming a German again, even if it means that I won’t be Israeli anymore. I would stay Jewish, anyway.”

At the end of the Shabbat ceremony in Pestalozzistraße, children get offered some grape juice on the bema (the synagogue’s altar) while everyone sings. Rabbi Sievers and the cantor stand at the exit, smiling at their congregation, shaking hands, hugging, exchanging a few kind words and a “Shabbat Shalom” with almost everyone on their way out. People continue chatting as they head out the door. It’s dark outside now and it’s raining; umbrellas open, mothers quickly put raincoats on their children. Most of them only have to go around the corner.