Helping Young German Jews Navigate a Complicated Identity
For Benjamin Fischer, reconciling his German and Jewish identities has been a lifelong project. Fortunately, JDC has been there to help.
By Benjamin Fischer - Chief Digital Officer, Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany | August 17, 2020
Sometimes my Jewish story is hard for even me to believe, but that’s what it’s like to be German and Jewish. It’s complicated.
My mother is Israeli (her family is originally from Tunisia), and my father is German, with some Jewish roots in his family, too. He met my mother on a train when he came to Israel in the 1970s, and they fell in love. Before he converted, that caused some turmoil in my mother’s Orthodox family as they learned to accept this non-Jewish German; my father was the first German my maternal grandfather had seen since leaving the labor camp in Tunisia where he spent the war. Eventually, both families grew to love each other, but it took several years.
My parents came to Germany more than 30 years ago, and because my father served in the army, we had to move frequently — at first every three years and then every six years. Because of that, it was hard for us to build a proper Jewish life, since he often served in smaller cities due to the army bases there.
I was born in Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, and at the age of three, we moved to Cologne, where being Jewish was something we had to actively reach out for. We kept kosher, but being Jewish in Cologne meant one kosher chicken on Shabbat, since the rabbi would drive over the Belgian border to Antwerp with a refrigerated van to pick them up for the community.
When I was 10, we moved to Berlin, and everything changed. Suddenly, I was going to a Jewish school and there was a real kosher infrastructure. People around me were living their Judaism in a very different way than what I’d known before. I felt torn between two worlds — I had become so used to being in a minority bubble, that it felt new and sometimes strange to be celebrating Jewish holidays together with my community in school.
As a child, I never really knew JDC, but at university in Hamburg, I got connected to its Berlin office’s micro-grants initiative, which empowered people to start their own programming. I found it to be an extremely innovative approach to Jewish life. I used to have a project where I would invite non-Jews — teachers, university students, the elderly, and more — and introduce them to Judaism in about one hour. I thought of myself as the “zoo Jew,” doing important work but also on display in a way that sometimes made me uncomfortable. On the one hand, it was extremely empowering and a great way to earn a living while in school, but it also politicized me, as, for the first time, I began to understand the spread of anti-Semitism.
My Jewish journey continued to deepen when I got connected with the European Union of Jewish Students. At that time, I received a scholarship from a foundation called ELES, an organization that changed the landscape of Jewish activism and identity, not only for me personally but for the entire German Jewish community. Within six months of getting to know EUJS, I was hooked. I ran for president and, after getting elected, totally lost myself in the work. It was so exciting to see that my interests as a German Jew and a global citizen could co-exist.
EUJS was my gateway to global Jewry and JDC. I visited the New York headquarters, spoke with JDC Entwine young leaders, and used many JDC capacity-building tools and resources to build out my organization’s Board meetings and training programs. I also attended Junction seminars as a speaker and participant, taking advantage of the pan-European partnership between JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod. I was straight out of university and suddenly running an organization and managing employees. It felt like there was never enough time to adjust and learn, but JDC was always there as a partner — to discuss my annual programming, to co-organize events like our Summer U seminar, and more.
JDC caters to my age group in a way few other organizations do. There’s surprisingly little programming for young professionals in Europe, and I’ve always been struck by the approach Junction takes to Jewish programming, focusing on both professional and personal development. Europe is so much smaller than the United States, and still, we find it challenging to establish pan-European networks that last. JDC and Junction are key players in that space because of the quality of the content they bring; they’ve been responsible for connecting European Jewish communities to ideas from across the Jewish world.
JDC offers European Jewish communities a different perspective, pinpointing crucial pieces that might be lacking in a community and empowering people to build up their own structures to address those issues. It’s extremely valuable because even established communities can lack an understanding of their needs and a sense of what’s possible. At its core, JDC is constructive, trying to sustainably come up with local solutions and initiatives to fill those gaps, and without JDC, I feel Jewish life in Europe would be in danger.
I currently work with the central welfare board of the German Jewish community running a government-funded “think lab” focused on digital transformation. Working with 142 established Jewish communities in Germany that comprise some 230,000 people, we have a few main goals: coordinate change management and optimizing digital tools for communities; giving out grants and focusing on capacity-building; building infrastructure (like boosting WiFi access in Jewish old-age homes, a process we luckily completed just before the coronavirus pandemic began); and directly working with communities through seminars touching on everything from cyber-security to how to use Zoom.
With increased digital literacy, people in desperate need can get the help they require. We’ve spent a lot of time on crisis communications, much of it in Russian, as we have a very large Russian-speaking Jewish population in Germany. We’ve also offered assistance as many smaller communities have moved to remote work for the first time.
Even in my German Jewish community, I’m sometimes shocked by the distance between where we are and where we need to be. To succeed, we must address the generational gap between communal leadership and community members, empowering young leaders to bring new approaches to areas like gender and inclusion.
Jewish identity in Germany is both a contradiction and a fascinating new project.
One initiative I’m particularly proud of is “Tablets for Savta,” a fundraiser where we raised money to purchase tablets for Jewish elderly on lockdown who could no longer safely see their relatives. We’d heard the early reports out of Italy, and we wanted to make sure German Jewish communities had the necessary digital infrastructure. Ultimately, we purchased 75 tablets and some additional smart phones, and we started a national platform bringing together people who needed help and volunteers willing to offer it.
Jewish identity in Germany is both a contradiction and a fascinating new project. Today’s German Jewish community looks very different than you might expect. We’re multicultural and extremely diverse, and there is no one story. We have people whose parents and grandparents liberated Auschwitz, and we have people who survived the camps.
Germany is not a perfect place, but I proudly consider myself to be German, Jewish, and European — and I’m here to stay.
Benjamin Fischer, 29, is the chief digital officer of the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany (ZWST). He’s the former president of the European Union of Jewish Students.