NY-Berlin Rabbi

Let’s step out, reach out to others, fulfill our responsiblity in this society because we are here to stay, says Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal…


Yehuda Teichtal (c) jvg

Yehuda Teichtal
(c) jvg

Just recently, my wife Leah and I walked our daughter to the chuppah. Here in Berlin. Right in the heart of the city, at the Tiergarten. Just yards away from sites where the Holocaust was planned, centers of darkness and evil. Yet we had made a conscious decision to celebrate our daughter’s wedding in Berlin. Because we are here to stay. Because we believe in Berlin, we believe in the future and we believe in the people and there is no better way than being here. And there is hardly a more powerful message that Jewish life is here to stay than a wedding.
But let’s look back. In the summer of 1996, Leah and I were packing our bags to move to Berlin. We were very excited to come here as Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902−1994), the Lubavitcher Rebbe, had lived in Berlin before the Second World War. Moreover, the Teichtal family has roots in Germany dating back some 500 years. Many members of my family were killed in the Holocaust. I was born in the U.S., and Germany was far to us, it was not something we related to neither individually nor as the Jewish community. But the Rebbe said that we should not ignore Germany. We should go there and build up with the people there. When I told my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, that we were off to Berlin, he hesitated for a split second. Then he blessed me and said: “You have to go, Yehuda. It is God’s will. And our answer to the greatest atrocity in the history of mankind. Go.” So Leah and I got a one-way-ticket. We arrived in Berlin in August 1996. And we have never looked back. Berlin is our home.

Bring out the good

“Build ye houses and dwell in them:” Building is an expression of trust. Be it building houses, a family, a community. We started building in Berlin, in Germany. Today, I am deeply touched when I walk into our school. Some 200 children are studying here or being cared for in the kindergarten. You see them playing, learning, Jewish children discussing Jewish thought. Our tradition lives. Right here in Berlin. I am deeply touched during the services at the synagogue we built, at each bar and bat mitzvah ceremony. I am deeply touched when I see our young students engrossed in debate at our student’s center. I am deeply touched when I see Leah baking challot with 150 women. Recently, we distributed food packages to over 1,000 families from socially weak backgrounds to help them through the High Holidays – that’s what Yiddishkait is all about.
I am deeply touched when each December we light the big Hannukiah at the Brandenburg Gate. And I am deeply touched when I open the Siddur we have just published, complete with new German translation and transliteration which guides us through 362 days of the year – the prayer book for the High Holidays, Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, will make a separate volume.

Memorials not sufficient

We are full of positive energy which brings people together, working for a common goal: a free and tolerant society. We are aware that there are problems. We are shocked by the rise of the right-wing AfD party in Germany. But: we are not disheartened by this. Rather, it shows us how important it is that we are here, integrated in society and proud of our heritage. Some say we should do less, we should not say that we are Jews, we should not have our Jewish Parade on the holiday of Lag Ba-Omer, we should not make ourselves heard because then we would be accepted more. No. On the contrary. We will be respected more if we stand up and say: this is our culture and we are here to stay. We will be respected even by those who may not like the idea of having a multicultural society. We stretch out our hands because we can all be different but equal. This is what makes for a healthy society: not everybody is the same but we all are part of something much larger. We are reaching out to all, whether they are Jews, Muslims, atheists. It is up to us to create a strong Jewish life and a strong society where Jews have a good Jewish life, Christians a good Christian life, Muslims a good Muslim life – and at the same time be open and respect one another.
Memorials are important. We must always remember the past. But memorials are not sufficient. We cannot live, we cannot educate a new generation only through memorials, looking at the past. Instead we must live our tradition, fill it with life. The Jewish people have survived nearly three millennia – not because of our language, not because of our land, but because of our tradition. And because of education and learning.
A friend complained recently that his children want little to do with Judaism. I asked him what he had taught them. “It’s schver zu seyn a Jid”, he said. “No,” I answered: “It is good to be a Jew. The secret of Judaism is education. Teach your children that it’s good to be a Jew! Teach them that being Jewish is joyful and positive.” People, especially young people, are looking for an identity. We must give them a strong, clear Jewish identity.
Our goal is to inspire people so that they may inspire other people. Everybody has the ability to do good and we have to help the person bring out the good in them.
Just before Rosh Ha-Shanah, many people have come to me to express their worries and concerns. What will the new year hold in store? Time and again, I heard, we have put trust in this society we have built our lives here, our jobs, our families. They are worried about the impact the refugees will have on German society. Let’s be clear about this: It is a good thing that Germany took in the refugees. But many refugees come from countries where they were breastfed with hatred of the Jewish people. They do not feel the historic responsibility towards the Jewish people that is part of German life. It is not their fault. But we have a collective responsibility as a society and make sure – here in Germany even more than elsewhere – that there is tolerance for all people. We have to demand from the political leadership that they make it very clear to any refugee who comes to Germany that part of the package of responsibility is to respect religious freedom, respect others, respect the Jewish past and the Jewish present in this country. We must make this clear from the beginning – one does not have a second chance to make a first impression. But let’s also be clear about this: We Jews must be vigilant, awake: but that does not mean we have to hide ourselves. On the contrary, we must step out, reach out to others, fulfill our responsibility in this society. Because we are here to stay.
Soon we will be laying the foundation stone for the Jewish Campus here in Berlin. It will rest on three pillars: education, culture and recreation. The building will house a nursery, a kindergarten, a state recognized elementary and high school for more than 400 children. The cultural center will comprise a movie hall and a dance room. And we will have a state-of-the-art sports arena. The building in the heart of Berlin will be transparent, open, inviting everybody to join us. Two thirds of the funds have been raised so far. We are building again in Berlin, in Germany. Because we are here to stay

Photo Credit: jvg

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