Re-Spoking the Wheel in Berlin

Photo by Jonathan Schorsch

By Jonathan Schorsch

Relatively new to this recently-rediscovered Jewish capital of Europe, I have spent a high percentage of my last half-year working to gear up for the first session of the Jewish Activism Summer School which I founded. This unique new 3-week interdisciplinary program in Berlin brings together an international group of scholars and practitioners, Jewish and non-Jewish, to inspire and inform participants (ages 18 to 35) through a rich array of mini-courses, visits to local organizations and volunteer experiences. Ours is hardly the first Berlin nonprofit, Jewish or otherwise, seeking to bring about change. Indeed, part of the reason I designed the program curriculum as I did was precisely to take advantage of the numerous already-existing organizations and projects around the city. While people, myself included, inevitably insist that they do not want to “reinvent the wheel,” I have been unexpectedly moved and expanded by the process of what I will call re-spoking the wheel.

The goal of the Jewish Activism Summer School is to encourage young Jews to take up what is variously called community work, organizing, social entrepreneurship or change-making – i.e., tikkun ha-olam – to give them better knowledge about how to do so, connect them to an already-existing network of activists, and to strengthen the Jewish knowledge of those who are already active in such endeavors. We aim to propel Jews to be active as Jews in issue areas that affect us all collectively, regardless of our national, ethnic or religious background. We want to bring into dialogue spiritual and political activism, theory and practice, ancient wisdom and cutting-edge interdisciplinary knowledge, Jewish and non-Jewish identities, and the global and the local. Our mission is not to impose answers, but to harness fruitful questioning and introspection as fundamental to self-aware engagement in the struggle to (1) improve real-world conditions for people, other beings and places; (2) design better societal systems so as to reduce the need to fix problems after the fact; and (3) to combat growing anti-democratic politics and policies.

Mini-courses on Jewish topics include Hegel’s Jewish Followers (Micha Brumlik); Dialogical Activism: Memory and Reconciliation, Self and Other (Irit Dekel); Nefesh HaChaim: Chaim of Volozhin’s Manifesto for Intellectual Activism (Elad Lapidot); Torah as Radical Economics (Micha Odenheimer); Why Mass Incarceration is a Jewish Issue (Joshua Dubler); Mitzvot beyn Adam leHavero (Admiel Kosman); among others. Two day-long training sessions will instruct us in Deep Democracy and Nonviolent Communication (both methodologies established by Jews). Visits to local organizations will expose participants to real-world models of change-making and dialogue with the groups’ leaders. Examples include a syndicate that helps renters buy their houses or apartments in order to take the properties off of the market; an outfit that produces a website indicating all the places around Berlin where fruits, nuts, berries, etc. grow on public lands available for the taking; a group that teaches English to Middle Eastern refugees in an intentionally reciprocal framework; a global NGO that fights governmental and business corruption; a group seeking to purchase Berlin’s energy grid in order to have it controlled by citizens rather than private utility companies; and more.

I admit to having been somewhat nervous about reaching out to people regarding my project. Would some find it too Jewish? Is it too religious for “real” activists? Too “lefty” for the often conservative-leaning Jewish community here in Germany? The responses I have encountered surprised and delighted me. A leader in Denmark on reducing food waste told me she “loves the Jewish people” and would be happy to come as an instructor even without being paid. A Yezidi activist in The Netherlands who started a foundation to help her people in the face of genocidal persecution by the so-called Islamic State replied to my invitation by reporting that Jews have been among her strongest supporters and that she, too, will be glad to speak to our group even if uncompensated. A Norwegian who ran a model eco-humane prison in his country was so wowed by the Jewish Activism Summer School’s mission that he also offered to teach for us without pay. As a university program we have to pay our faculty by law, but the openness, warmth and generosity of these non-Jews impressed me immensely. A local outfit that helps homeless and unemployed people proudly told us that they celebrate Rosh Hashana! (Why they do I have yet to discover.)

Actual Jewishness came out of the closet at unexpected turns and in unanticipated ways. The representative from an organization using citizen inspectors to combat illegal overfishing asked me whether I thought she should expect lots of questions at her session. I told her that the participants are Jewish and therefore probably like to talk. She then told me that her father is Jewish and loves to talk. An Indian woman coming to talk about a project to preserve critical lands by bringing together scientists and indigenous spiritual leaders confessed in an email that she was excited to spend shabbat with us, as her British grandfather’s grandmother was a German Jew (!) and her father’s uncle married an Indian Jew — yet everything she knows about Jewish culture comes from books. An Israeli applicant who teaches at a religious high school in Jerusalem informed me that both of his parents are converts.

Searching out and connecting with activists both within and beyond the Jewish world has been nothing short of a revelation. A heartening one, at that. I have met person after person devoting her life to the community, to making things better. Their concern, creativity, persistence and selflessness inspire great hope in me. The Palestinian-Jewish couple who open their restaurant’s kitchen so that locals and refugees can come together to cook. The group training Berliners to offer interfaith tours of the city. The initiative fighting anti-semitism, most of whose members are not Jewish, but Turks and other Muslims. The volunteers who pick up leftover food and deliver it to a venue where diners need not pay to take it. The founder of a Jewish community center in Budapest intentionally open to Roma and other organizations, recently the victim of a public, daytime attack by neo-Nazis. I feel incredibly blessed and fortunate to meet such people, of whom there are, thankfully, many more than the 36 hidden righteous ones our tradition knows. I am grateful that this blessing will be passed on to our program participants. The cross-boundary interest and cooperation sought and fostered by these people is of vital importance not only to the still-insular Jewish communities of Europe but to a continent retreating, like too much of today’s world, back into group-think and xenophobia.

Jonathan Schorsch is Professor of Jewish Religious and Intellectual History, School of Jewish Theology, Universität Potsdam.