The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
One week after the 75th commemoration of Kristallnacht in November, my daughter landed in Berlin. In Israel this year for seminary, she and another girl were chosen by a rav in their school to accompany him to Berlin on a kiruv mission.
When my daughter first called me to request permission to go, I was struck by the irony of the suggestion. Kiruv in Berlin. Almost an oxymoron. For someone like me who has sworn never to step foot in Germany, granting her permission wasn’t easy. But in the end I relented. How can I tell my daughter not to do kiruv?
So off she went to the city of Kristallnacht and the cradle of Nazism to introduce the beauty of Judaism to the uninformed. Those uninformed make up approximately 120,000 members of Germany’s Jewish community, mostly Russian Jews who flocked to Germany after the fall of the USSR in 1989 in response to generous government incentives. Like the Jews of Russia who were completely detached from Judaism living under communist rule, these Jews are true examples of a “tinok shenishba.”
My daughter’s experience, though brief, was profound. She encountered mainly students, including a dozen girls studying in the new midrashah in Berlin. Though most were Russian-speaking German Jews, some were non-German Jewish students studying in local universities who were attracted by the kiruv programs. Most were eager to learn about Judaism and sincere in their motivation.
Proud as I am of my daughter’s enthusiasm and her proclivity for outreach, I somehow can’t shake a niggling regret that it had to be in Germany. As the daughter of a Hungarian mother who escaped deportation by running with her family from the Nazis and the daughter-in-law of a Dutch Jewish man whose parents were shot by the Nazis and who was liberated from Bergen Belsen at the age of 12, I am one generation closer to the Holocaust than my daughter. And one degree closer to the idea of shunning anything and everything German.
Many of my friends are children of Holocaust survivors. We grew up with the uncontested notion that buying German products was taboo and visiting Germany unthinkable. Though many countries were complicit with the Nazis during World War II, and many other nations over the centuries perpetrated vicious anti-Semitic acts against Jews, the sheer magnitude and horror of the Holocaust places Germany in a league of its own.
Indeed, there is an established Brisk shitah that categorizes the Germans as Amalekites. In Fate and Destiny, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik refers to Nazis as Amalekites, citing his father Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik’s interpretation of Amalek as “any people or group that, filled with maniacal hatred, directs its enmity against” the Jewish people.
Though this is approach is not halacha, the Rav is known to have applied to Nazi Germany the precept that one may not derive material benefit from the products of Amalek. He even told Ben-Gurion after World War II that he was not permitted to accept reparation funds from Germany.
One may view today’s Germans as more conciliatory and apologetic toward Jews and think it unfair to hold them accountable for their fathers’ sins. However, anti-Semitism is alive and well in Germany. Though the most aggressive form of anti-Semitism can be attributed to the Muslim population there, both the far right and the far left of the political spectrum are plagued with nuanced anti-Semitism, much of it cloaked in anti-Israel sentiment.
Kiruv notwithstanding, is a country notorious for its systematic murder of Jews the proper site for rebuilding Jewish communities? Shouldn’t more be done to encourage Russian Jews in Germany who are interested in Yiddishkeit to emigrate to Israel rather than settle in a land drenched in Jewish blood?
Though some Jews might relish the thought of flaunting the rebirth of Jews in Deutschland, perhaps we should look to a different precedent and examine the well-known cherem placed on any Jew living in Spain following the Spanish Inquisition. That famous prohibition follows a lesser-known cherem said to have been placed on the city of York, England, in response to the massacre of Jews there in 1190.
Though no cherem was placed on Germany following the Holocaust, my soul cries out against the resurrection of anything Jewish there. The Holocaust was the single biggest and cruelest atrocity committed against the Jews and it happened in many of our own lifetimes. Though my opposition to the resuscitation of Jewish life in the graveyards of Germany cannot claim any halachic authority, shouldn’t an emotional response have a measure of validity?
I am a firm advocate of kiruv and by no means support the abandonment of our Jewish brothers and sisters wherever they may be. But at what price? I know that if I had been asked to go to Berlin on a kiruv mission, I would not have been able to go through with it.
About the Author: Sara Lehmann, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, was formerly an editor at a major New York publishing house.
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