By Liam Hoare
Inaugurated in 1916, Berlin’s Fraenkelufer Synagogue turns one hundred years old this year. Situated on a bend in the Landwehrkanal in Kreuzberg – a historically poor, working-class area of the city – and adorned with medieval and baroque ornamentation, Fraenkelufer was first set ablaze on Kristallnacht in November 1938, then destroyed by aerial bombardment in 1944. What was originally the Jugendsynagoge – the synagogue for young people – adjacent to the main hall survived and was re-consecrated by Holocaust survivors after the war.
In recent years, Fraenkelufer has experienced something of a revival as an Orthodox synagogue that balances tradition with openness, augmented by two waves of immigration into Berlin: first, of Jews from the former Soviet Union who began to arrive after 1990; and, young artists and professionals from Europe, Israel, and the United States who came a little later. “The future of the Jewish community is here,” William Noah Glucroft, treasurer of the nonprofit Freunde der Synagoge Fraenkelufer (Friends of Fraenkelufer Synagogue, or FdF) told me. “We’re seeing the next generation of the Berlin Jewish community unfolding at Fraenkelufer.”
Three years ago, a core group of around twelve young people – a kind of new guard that included Glucroft – began the work of changing the character of Fraenkelufer, a synagogue whose future at that time was far from secure. “Before we got involved, Fraenkelufer existed for Friday nights and Saturday mornings, and that was it, apart from the occasional wedding, bris, and bar mitzvah.” There were no family or cultural events, and nothing happened outside of Shabbat and the holidays.
“Jewish life means more than just Kabbalat Shabbat and Saturday morning services. The goal is something for everybody,” not only for those who connect to their Jewishness through service and prayer but those who prefer to engage with cultural, social, or Zionistic aspects of Judaism. This gar’in of young people operated informally and haphazardly at first, in Glucroft’s words, planning new events – communal meals, family events, Jewish learning, and so on – but in January 2015 they decided to form FdF, which gained official status from the German state in August.
The whole concept of FdF – a grassroots, nonprofit organization – is something of a novelty not only in the Berlin Jewish community but within the context of religion in Germany, where institutions are centralized, employees are paid, and religious communities receive state funding raised by a 9 percent levy on income tax. But this structure – with its formal recognition and tax-exempt status – not only helps to increase the profile of Fraenkelufer, it enables them to raise money formally through donations, essential for a Jewish revival still in its embryonic stage. Today, FdF’s influence extends beyond its core membership to the hundred or so people who receive its weekly newsletter, the 459 people who like its Facebook page, and the 738 members of its Facebook group.
Away from the two centers of Jewish life in Berlin – Mitte, in the center of town where the Neue Synagoge is located; and Charlottenburg in the west – Fraenkelufer is strategically located in neighborhoods that have traditionally acted as staging posts for society’s outsiders: students, immigrants, artists, musicians, and members of the LGBT community. Today, many of the residents of Kreuzberg are of Turkish descent, while the adjacent Neukölln district has large Turkish, Arab – including Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian – and Kurdish immigrant communities, as well as students and creative artists from the West.
There is, then, within the context of European demographic change and social upheaval a certain symbolic and practical significance to having an active, socially oriented synagogue in this part of Berlin. This has been especially true during the refugee crisis. On Mitzvah Day – November 8 – members of Fraenkelufer volunteered at a refugee shelter in Wilmersdorf in southwest Berlin, donating clothing, blankets, hygiene products, and vouchers and providing various arts and crafts, sports activities, face painting and more for the children of the shelter. They returned to the shelter over Christmas, covering for the Christian volunteers who were at home with their families, and volunteering with refugees in this way has morphed into a monthly activity.
There is always the question of who you should help first in times of crisis, but Fraenkelufer has committed itself to working with refugees precisely because of the fears senior figures within the Berlin Jewish community have related this latest wave of immigration. “If you want to create a new paradigm and a new relationship with people who you are afraid have certain pre-conceived notions about you, the best way is to interact and engage with them, not hide behind your fortress and not wonder who they are,” Glucroft told me. An absence of dialogue creates a vacuum within which stereotypes are allowed to build up. Instead, Fraenkelufer “go out and set an example of who we are and what we can be together, and slowly, we build a new city together.”
Glucroft, 30, is originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, and has been living in Berlin and working as a freelance content producer since 2009. “I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, and my family instilled in me the value that being part of a Jewish community is important, that whenever you go anywhere you should seek out Jews, and that there’s nothing better than being invited to someone’s home for Shabbat dinner,” he told me as we were finishing our lunch of hummus and falafel at Azzam, a joint he regularly frequents in Neukölln, when I asked what led him not just to seek out a synagogue after he emigrated, but throw himself into helping create FdF.
It comes back to the idea of being part of something larger than oneself, especially in a city like Berlin that somewhat lacks for community, Jewish or otherwise. “The goal is to build something here. This is Berlin and there’s no overlooking the past – but there are a lot of people who want to be trapped by that past and we have a different understanding. Because of the history, we want to build something new, something sustainable, something positive, and that’s not only good for Jews – that’s good for everybody.”