Q&A: Building Germany’s Jewish Future

August 5, 2014


It might sound counterintuitive given the traumatic history of the 20th century, but over the past few decades, Germany has boasted one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world.

Tens of thousands of Jewish families and individuals from the former Soviet Union, Israel, and elsewhere have flocked to the country in search of opportunity, settling down in prosperous centers of finance like Frankfurt or taking part in Berlin’s renaissance as a hub for arts and culture.

Partnering with the established Jewish communities, JDC has stepped in to foster Jewish life throughout the country. Lili Furman, JDC’s senior official in the country overseeing a vast network of Jewish projects, explains how.

Q: What does JDC do in Germany?

A: Everything we do here is in collaboration and close partnership with Jewish communities. The estimation is that there are 200,000 Jews in Germany. Outside the biggest community, Berlin, which has a big number of independent Jewish institutions, we try to help the communities to enrich the quality of Jewish life and identify Jews who are not affiliated through various outstanding projects.

Q: Like what?

A: In Cologne, and until recently in Dusseldorf, we co-funded a local community organizer. It might not sound glamorous but until now, they’d never had one. They have had a rabbi, hazzan (cantor), and administration but not a program coordinator to set up social, cultural, and spiritual activities. It’s making a difference for the members and adds to the efforts to reach out to people who are not linked to the community.

Q: What other projects is JDC working on?

A: We have a team of Jewish educators going to small- and medium-sized communities like Augsburg, Bielefeld, Recklinghausen, or Hanover three or four times a year to work on projects like family meetings, holiday celebrations, and summer and winter camps.

Q: What about the biggest community, Berlin?

A: In Berlin, we have many partnerships with organizations but we are autonomous. We created a small JCC (Jewish Community Center) for families called Bambinim, with two locations: Charlottenburg and Friedrichshain. The former is a more traditional Jewish neighborhood. Most Jews in the latter are immigrants who have arrived over the past decade. We offer them a Jewish space for families to meet, celebrate, have their kids learn specific courses, and create networks between young families. We have a Pesach and summer camp for kids until age 6 — which in Germany is rare. We also have lectures and workshops in subjects like parenting or Jewish literature for children. We bring guests to speak about bilingualism and multiple identities.

Our Bambinim participants are Americans, Germans, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union, South America, and Eastern Europe. Many are married to non-Jews – that’s Berlin! And our doors are open to all. Most have no family in town so our network is an alternative. Bambinim is a center of life for them.

We also have two JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps fellows organizing Jewish film nights, holiday celebrations, and cooking classes where people learn to make foods for Shavuot or bake challah with children.

Q: What’s the latest project you’re working on?

A: We’re working on a gardening project in Augsburg, Bavaria, about 40 minutes from Munich. The community of about 2,000 people contacted us last year through the rabbi. We offer them courses at the Jewish Community Center. In particular, we proposed using gardening programs as a way to socialize and have fun through a creative interaction. The garden will become a gathering place, and when it gets colder we’ll begin indoor lectures on nature and ecology in Judaism.

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