Finding and Building Jewish Community in Germany


Members of Ohel Hachidusch gather for tree planting at their eco-kashrut garden in Gatow, Berlin. Credit: Brian Swarthout, March, 2012.

The many branches of Judaism confuse me and I dread being asked by non-Jews to explain what it means to be Reform or Conservative, let alone Renewal or Reconstructionist. I’ve looked up the definitions but they just don’t resonate with me. The affiliation of a synagogue means far less to me than the sense of community that comes from sharing Jewish rituals and traditions with friends and family.
But that sense of community can be hard to find, and when it does come, it can be at unexpected times and from unexpected sources. Before our family moved to Berlin in July of 2010, we had spent years debating the benefits of membership in our local synagogue. We were now eager to experience Jewish life in the country of our heritage. We planned to make our way through the city’s menu of Jewish congregations, never expecting to forge a close connection with any particular group.
Jewish Berlin offers a plethora of possibilities for anyone on a quest to find the right niche for themselves. Although Berlin is a very liberal city, Jewish Berlin leans heavily in the other direction, and the majority of congregations are Orthodox. Still, with the influx of East European Jews, Israelis, and even a growing number of American Jews, Berlin’s Jewish community is evolving to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population.
As we gradually made the rounds of the city’s non-Orthodox congregations, one tiny group embraced us with such warmth that we ultimately became regulars at services with this close-knit community. Ohel Hachidusch is Germany’s only Jewish Renewal congregation. Tucked into a tiny corner of Jewish gem├╝tlichkeit (coziness), the Ohelistas sing, study, and celebrate their Judaism a world away from the guarded gates of Berlin’s official houses of worship. The members come together in a celebration of life and create community in the places where they gather, whether it’s an artist’s studio, the land where they practice organic farming, or the church where they hold services.
Ohel Hachidusch is an anomaly in Jewish Berlin, a small rainbow family under a big tent that welcomes gays and lesbians, secular Jews, interfaith couples and converts under its canvas. Women make up the majority of congregants who have found their niche in this haven for social justice and sustainable living. Some of the Ohelistas might not feel comfortable or accepted in Berlin’s other synagogues, even in the city’s sole Reform congregation.

Olivia and Avery Swarthout take a break from planting a pear tree. Credit: Brian Swarthout, March, 2012.

Conversely, as a fairly progressive group, Ohel Hachidusch appears not to be fully accepted by the Jewish Community of Berlin. Neither the congregation nor its leader, an ALEPH-ordained cantor, are listed on the organization’s website. My queries to numerous Jewish officials in Germany about this omission were met with vague and evasive answers. For example, Stephan Kramer, Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, assured me via email that the “Council…represents the political interests of Jews in Germany irrespective of their Jewish-religious denomination,” but could not tell me why Ohel Hachidusch was absent from the Berlin Jewish Community’s website.
Religious life is funded and organized very differently in Germany than in the U.S. The Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish communities all receive funding from the federal government, which is then allocated to the regional and local level. The German government recently increased its funding to the Central Council of Jews in Germany from 5 million euros per year to 10 million euros (about $13 million).
In the land where the Holocaust occurred, it is especially vital that both the federal government and the official Jewish community embrace the many diverse expressions of Judaism within Germany and around the world. Vigilance in the struggle against anti-Semitism should be matched by vigilance in nurturing a broad and tolerant foundation for Judaism to thrive.
Our family did experience a deep sense of community with the members of Ohel Hachidusch. And we do strongly identify with the Renewal Movement’s emphasis on inclusion, diversity, and sustainable, responsible living. The quest for community not only happens on the level of individuals and families, but on the broader levels of nations and cultures. My hope is that in the land where Jewish life came close to extinction and where the revived population is now so much more diverse, a broader sense of Jewish community will emerge.
Donna Swarthout is a freelance writer and instructor in the Honors Program at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. She lived in Berlin, Germany from 2010 – 2012. You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle.

0 thoughts on “Finding and Building Jewish Community in Germany

  1. I did not realize that there is state funding of religion in Germany. I’m glad it makes it possible for Judaism to flourish by providing some funding. As for diversity, the congregation sounds much like my Unitarian Universalist congregation in Portland, OR in its focus on inclusivity, diversity, social justice and sustainability. Bravo! I hope Ohel Hachidusch will soon be included in the Berlin Jewish Community’s website. It is quite interesting — and notable — that they are not and there is no explanation for it.

  2. How nice that you found a comfortable Jewish home in Berlin. Germany has done a fairly good job of making t’shuvah for the Shoah, but its present system of support for congregations does not accept the diversity of Jewish approaches to religion, and along with ignoring Renewal, it discriminates strongly against the Progressive (Reform) movement. Ohel Hachidusch, while maintaining its Renewal identity, might do well to try to find common cause the Progressive community in Berlin, and throughout Germany, which unites through the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The broader sense of community the author asks for is dependent on the concept that kol Yisraek arevim zeh lazeh, , all Israel is responsible one for the other — and while our Orthodox cousins don’t want to concede that, the rest of us have to work together to communicate that we are real, and the future, to the secular authorities.

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