Rethinking the German-Jewish Relationship

It was not how Tali Schwartz imagined starting her first trip to Germany.

Religiously observant and cautious when it came to Germany, Schwartz made the journey to Berlin in early June to take part in the Third Generation Initiative. TGI is a long-term project of the American Jewish Committee, Munich-based financial services company Allianz, and Germany Close Up, a German nonprofit promoting American-Jewish-German relations, administered by Berlin’s New Synagogue Foundation – Centrum Judaicum.

“Honestly, I was nervous about going to Germany,” Schwartz, a non-profit professional from New York, explains. “What can I say? It’s the land of the perpetrators of the Shoah.” Schwartz was one of 10 American participants affiliated with AJC’s ACCESS program for young professionals.

The American group had several days to acclimate in Berlin before the official opening of the week-long program with 10 German peers, primarily Allianz employees. For the first time this year, the group also included three alumni of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a German non-profit exchange and service organization. Staying in a small hotel near Berlin’s landmark New Synagogue, it was inevitable that TGI participants would encounter each other even before the program began. And that’s precisely what occasioned the moment that set the tone for Tali Schwartz’s weeklong journey of discovery.

Lighting a candle

“The American contingent arrived early on Friday, and spent Shabbat in Berlin to rest and prepare for the week ahead,” Schwartz explains. “On Saturday night, I came downstairs with a friend to the hotel’s sidewalk café, looking for matches to light the Havdalah candle. A few of the German participants had just arrived, and curious about what we were doing, joined in, one even holding the candle. What a way to start off a week together; saying blessings under the stars in Berlin, with Germans we had just met. This unexpected moment was a true harbinger of what was to come.”

In many ways, Schwartz’s first encounter with people who became new friends from the new Germany set the tone for the rest of their week together. It also reflected the spirit of the entire program, now in its fourth year. The Third Generation Initiative was the brainchild of David Harris, Executive Director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, and Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger of Allianz. Having served as Germany’s Ambassador in Washington and London, Ischinger joined Allianz as Global Head of Government Affairs in 2008, bringing with him a lifelong commitment to German-Jewish relations. Ischinger’s goal was to translate this commitment into action at Allianz, a nearly 125-year-old German company that, in the late 1990s, had begun to confront its darkest period of history in Nazi Germany. To Ischinger’s mind, what better way to learn from history and shape the future than to promote mutual understanding between those of the third generation after the Shoah?

Meeting peers

For his part, Harris maintains a very strong commitment to German-American relations and also an interest in engaging members of Germany’s influential business community. Harris and Ischinger thus came up with a plan to build on an existing model for bringing young American Jews to Germany – and they added a twist. Not only would a group of young Jewish professionals from AJC’s nationwide ACCESS program spend a week meeting with representatives of German government, academia and business – including such high-profile speakers as renowned transatlanticist and Member of Parliament, Hans-Ulrich Klose – but they would do so with peers from Germany, stimulating a thoughtful encounter for all participants with issues of German-Jewish affairs and transatlantic relations.

“We were thrilled to adapt our model for bringing Jewish groups from the U.S. to Germany – so far we have brought 1400 participants in almost 70 groups to Germany with participant cohorts ranging from orthodox students to conservative rabbis to our first-ever, all-LGBT group last autumn – and create a new program that would include German participants,” says Dr. Dagmar Pruin, Director of Germany Close Up.

“This project partnership was a risk for everyone, given the emotionally charged topics being covered,” adds Deidre Berger, Director of the AJC Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations. “However, this somewhat unconventional venture has proved highly successful: American Jewish and German young professionals exploring history and modern Germany together promotes a significantly heightened understanding of responsibility for the past and present.”

The next chapters

The program can be challenging for participants from the US and Germany alike. Anyone who comes from a family in the US that to this day will not buy German cars or other products knows that even traveling to Germany can be a sensitive matter. Behind such concerns, of course, is the Shoah. As part of TGI, the group visits the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial outside of Berlin. “Imagine being German, possibly a descendant of perpetrators, and visiting Sachsenhausen with the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors – it’s very powerful and it’s very humbling,” says Allianz’s Christian Koennecke from Stuttgart, a 2013 TGI participant.

TGI-participants Tali Schwartz and Morten
Edzards at the German Parliament

Participants begin TGI well aware that they can’t really know what it will be like to engage with people from the other side of a famous historical divide. But finding ways to move forward together is what TGI is meant to accomplish – especially at a time when German relations with the U.S. and Israel are increasingly important in a volatile world. “The program changed the way I look at modern Germany, yes,” says Tali Schwartz. “But it did more than that. I went to Germany expecting to learn a lot, but what I found was something more like a miracle – a real space for building transformative relationships.” And perhaps also new ways to write together the next chapters of the German-Jewish relations. 

Christopher Worthley serves as Executive Director of the Allianz Foundation for North America and coordinates the Third Gene­ration Initiative on behalf of ­Allianz, under the direction of Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger and together with longtime partners at the American Jewish Committee and Germany Close Up. Previously a resident of Germany for 10 years, he has worked for many years on issues related to German-Jewish relations. He now lives in greater Washington, DC, and is also an ordained ­clergyman.

christopher [dot] worthley [at] azoac [dot] com

Photo Credit: Holz85, Third Generation Initiative

What Next?

Related Articles