German Jews in Response to the Refugee Crisis in Germany – notes from a German Rabbi

Member’s of Berlin’s Jewish community volunteer at Spandau refugee center. Photo courtesy.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 19“For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Gesa S. Ederberg

As Jews, we know all too well the tragedy of our grandparents and parents who needed to flee persecution in Europe prior to and during World War II, when the world turned its back against them. Today, the world is again facing a massive refugee crisis, and history is repeating itself. Here, in Germany – in an ironic twist of history – the German government has taken leadership in the world and made a declaration that this is an opportunity to “do the right thing” this time.

The refugee crisis is a daily story on the front page of every American newspaper, but what is not well known are the stories about how refugee shelters cope with this influx of desperate human beings and how the Jewish community in Berlin is engaged in the process.

The Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue and Masorti Germany have built a powerful partnership with a refugee shelter, run by the Berlin City Mission and a Christian NGO. Located in Spandau, an area in northwest Berlin where Jews lived dating back to the 1300’s, the Mertensstrasse Flüchtlingszentrum (refugee shelter) was opened in the fall of 2015 in an empty, former tobacco factory. As refugees arrived, beds were built and partitions installed. There were minimal sanitary facilities, no kitchen, no laundry, and no organized space and equipment to meet basic needs. Nevertheless, within three weeks, 1,000 refugees called this home.

This shelter was chosen as a pilot project due to the personal relationship between IsraAID, an Israeli disaster relief organization, and the director of the shelter, who had worked in peace projects in Israel. The rabbi of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue and several lay leaders quickly organized a Mitzvah Day in mid-November, and 50 congregants showed up. This was just the beginning. Every week, people continue to volunteer. One rabbinic student comes dressed in a clown costume to entertain the children. Others are helping to sort clothing and donated goods, assisting with German language classes, braiding ribbons into girls’ hair, and even helping the medical staff check for lice. Once a month, the synagogue organizes a day of cultural activities, with singing and dancing, arts and crafts and German lessons for the adults. IsraAID provides training for volunteers and trauma care directly for the refugees.

The Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin was cooperating with a refugee shelter housed in the Catholic Hospital just behind our synagogue. When they finished building a new wing, they decided not to use it for the hospital for the next couple of months, but to offer it as a refugee shelter. Immediately, they sent out letters to all the other religious communities and other social institutions in the neighborhood, asking for cooperation.

Just as a side note: The hospital is located on “Grosse Hamburger Strasse,” next to the Jewish High School and the former Jewish Home for the Elderly that was used by the Nazis as a collecting point before deportation to the camps. Some people managed to escape and the nuns at the Catholic Hospital took them in, wrapped them in bandages, put them in beds, simulating intensive care and so saved their lives! And today, we are cooperating for new refugees.

Teenagers and parents from the synagogue and the Jewish High School helped set up the rooms, assemble furniture, carry mattresses, etc. Other volunteers help refugees deal with the bureaucracy, teach German, spend leisure time together, organize sport events and other outings. We collected clothing, bags, books to learn German and more. At another refugee center, volunteers from the synagogue renovated and furnished a playroom for children.

Last year the synagogue invited Syrian refugees as guests for our Chanukka party and went with our kids to another shelter (next to the Jewish primary school) to do arts and crafts with the children there.

At our party, we had somebody from our Muslim sister congregation helping to translate my Chanukka explanations and the berakhot for candle lighting into Arabic, and later we taught them to play with dreidels and useful German words. One of our guests asked our Muslim friend (recognizable through her head covering): “Is such a relationship as we see here normal between Muslims and Jews in Germany?” and she answered (and told me so afterwards with a smile): “Yes, that’s normal.” This is the normalcy we want to create – and it would be great if you become part of it!

Gesa S. Ederberg is the Rabbi of Synagogue Oranienburger Strasse, in Berlin, Germany.