Why Berlin Now For Jewish Philanthropy?

German Jewish students supported by the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Scholarship Fund; eJP archives
German Jewish university students; eJP archives

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Berlin is having a moment in the Jewish philanthropic world. Over the past few years, major American and international Jewish organizations have sought to either establish a foothold in Berlin or expand their reach in a city home to an estimated fifty thousand Jews. Along with Warsaw and Krakow – the centers of the Jewish revival in central and eastern Europe, to which individual philanthropists or charitable organizations have both a historic and emotional attachment – Berlin has become a hub of Jewish philanthropic activity.

This is especially true in terms of the resources directed at students and young adults. A recent entrant to Berlin is Hillel, who in December 2014 launched a new movement in Europe’s German-speaking countries. “Now Jewish students in Germany heading off to pursue higher education can be assured of having a Jewish home away from home to engage in programming with other Jews,” Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, wrote for eJewish Philanthropy at the time of its launch.

Hillel is now one of a number of Jewish organizations who have moved into Berlin to provide programming opportunities for young peoplev – such as Shabbat gatherings, movie nights, and talks given by Jewish educators – including Moishe House Without Walls. Organizations with a longer presence in Berlin have also expanded their remit to encompass young people, such as the Chabad, who opened Chabad on Campus in 2012, a student house which serves as a venue for pro-Israel programming. It also hosts cultural events put on by the student group KSpace.

Such has been the growth in Jewish philanthropic activity (the aforementioned doesn’t even account for Limmud, the Lauder Foundation, or the American Jewish Committee), especially directed at young adults, that a roundtable organization was recently established in an attempt to coordinate it all. Initiated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC, who have an office in Berlin), Young Jewish Events in Berlin created a communal calendar of events such that all active groups in the city could be aware of the other’s work as to prevent overlap and doubling up. Hillel, Chabad, and Moishe House Without Walls are all party to this initiative.

Why Berlin now, then? The principal and most obvious reason is the rapid expansion in the size of the city’s Jewish community since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany that reopened the city to the world entire. What remained of the established Jewish community was joined in the early 1990s by a wave of immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. They were accompanied in subsequent years by Israeli businesspeople, academics, and artists deciding to make a home in Berlin, as well as young Jews from the United States, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe.

Jewish philanthropy has come to Berlin, in other words, because there are Jews in Berlin: the money has followed the people. But the growth of Jewish philanthropy in recent years can also be explained by a certain need that they are fulfilling within Jewish Berlin, for their financial support and logistical expertise plays an important role in a community that can tend towards Balkanization – German Jews here, Russian Jews there, Israelis in another place, Anglos somewhere else – and where young people have shown that they wish to separate from the established community and put on their own events.

“It’s a language thing,” Daniela Kalmar, who is a freelance organizer of Israeli and Jewish events in Berlin, told me. Each group – be it Israelis, Russian-speakers, or Germans – can support or even need their own events in their respective languages. Kalmar has been involved in Moadon, a club for Jewish young professionals aged 25 to 45 that organizes social events and is an initiative of the JDC. She told me that when they organize movie events, they try to go to the movie in the original language with German subtities. If the movie is in English, Israelis can follow, while German- or Russian-speaking German Jews can read the subtitles.

Anastassia Pletoukhina, the head of the Jewish student organization Studentim, told me that our parents struggled with their experience of migration: finding a job, making sure their children went through university, learning the language. Their children – her generation – who grew up in Berlin, meanwhile, were more assured in their own identity and came to see a community that did not provide the kind of events they wanted. They were strong enough to be able to organize by themselves. As to the support of major Jewish organizations, Pletoukhina witnessed a snowball effect where they could see the results from their assistance, and as such the opportunities for young people to cooperate with Jewish philanthropic organizations proliferated.

“The renewed interest in Berlin is a combination of the symbolism of Berlin, the historical significance, and that Berlin is cool now. Jewish organizations want to profit off of that,” William Noah Glucroft, treasurer of the Freunde der Synagoge Fraenkelufer (FdF) told me. FdF is also part of Young Jewish Events in Berlin. “It’s something that they can promote, tweet about, write newsletters for, and raise money for. It’s an easily packageable story that fits perfectly into the agenda” of Jewish renewal in Europe. FdF have received ‘tremendous’ support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

“Jewish life in Germany is blooming,” Fingerhut wrote for eJewish Philanthropy. “Berlin is now one of the world’s most innovative cities with a growing Jewish presence.” Indeed, the relationship between Berlin and Jewish philanthropic organizations cuts both ways. These organizations are there because the Jewish community is growing and has a lot of untapped potential – it’s fertile ground for philanthropic money. At the same time, Jewish organizations benefit from being a place that is perceived to be growing – that is seen as the place any serious Jewish organization needs to be because of its history and cultural cachet.