Faith Beyond the Atlantic

Posted: Dec 20, 2007 12:01 AM
Faith Beyond the Atlantic

BERLIN -- The religious skirmishes in the American presidential war sometimes sound almost medieval, and it's probably true, as Mitt Romney said, that the cathedrals of Europe stand more as postcard backdrops than places where Europeans kneel in prayer. But religious faith prospers in the lives of many Europeans.

The religious focus here is of an entirely different order than in the United States. No one much cares that Angela Merkel grew up as the daughter of a Lutheran clergyman in Communist East Germany, where being religious was an invitation to official trouble and harassment. The omnipresent Stasi, the government's efficient secret police, lurked behind every cross, a symbol of the free society the communists hated. But freedom of religion was only one among many of the freedoms the Germans were denied in the East.

Germans enjoy neither freedom of speech nor separation of church and state as we know it. Germans are free to say whatever they like, as long as they don't say anything forbidden by the government such as anti-Semitic Nazi slogans. All "official" religious bodies must pay taxes to the state, and in return receive subsidies from the state. Curiously, the fastest growing religious community here is made up of Jews, partly because so few were left in Germany after the Holocaust. The number of Jews in Germany is estimated to be as high as 200,000. The big growth started after the Wall came down; 85 percent of them coming from the former Soviet Union, where they were denied freedom of worship.

The Germans, forever looking for ways to assuage their guilt over the Holocaust, have been particularly receptive to Russian immigrants who signify a revival -- especially in Berlin -- of a Jewish culture, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of Auschwitz.

On the first night of Hanukkah, I was invited to a menorah lighting at the Brandenburg Gate. It was sponsored by the Lubavitch Chasadim, whose head, Rabbi Yehuda Teichtel, a Brooklyn-born Jew, joined Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit to welcome hundreds of celebrants, most carrying sparklers and balloons. The mayor spoke of the lively Jewish community in Berlin, of the vigilance required to make sure Jews feel "at home and safe in Germany." The menorah shares space on the square with a beautiful Christmas tree -- Mitt Romney would love it -- as well as the sight of Jewish and Christian children singing and dancing together with glee, warmed by the flickering lights glazing the winter raindrops falling all around them.

The next day, I visited a Jewish kindergarten where the children sang Hanukkah songs and lit holiday candles. The kindergarten is housed in a compound with a beautifully renovated synagogue that the Nazis used as a horse stable. Here, Jewish men can study the Torah in a traditional yeshiva. This flagship center is run by Rabbi Josh Spinner, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in an Orthodox family in Canada. He is vice president of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which aims to restore vital Jewish life in Eastern Europe. "Wherever there are Jews there should be Jewish life," he insists enthusiastically, aware of the impact such words have in the city where Hitler designed the Holocaust.

While Americans argue about the relationship between freedom and religion, Jews in Germany look to root their religion in everyday life. Sandra Anusiewicz-Baer, a pretty blond, blue-eyed Jewish mom with a 16-month-old baby in tow, wanted to talk to me about Familienmentsch: a quarterly Jewish parenting magazine she has started. It celebrates secular, liberal, conservative and orthodox Jewish identity and traditions.

The first issue is devoted to circumcision, which is a sensitive topic to Jews in Germany because that's how the Nazis identified Jewish men, since few other German men had been circumcised. When Sandra wanted to have a bris -- the traditional circumcision ceremony -- for her son, she didn't know how to arrange it. She discovered that many others wanted to learn more about Jewish religious and cultural traditions as well. She's published articles about circumcision from religious, historical, as well as practical perspectives and will approach other subjects in a similar way.

Several of her colleagues protested when she put a blond, blue-eyed baby on the cover, complaining that he didn't look Jewish. Stereotypes, she reminded them, are wrong. Besides that, the boy on the cover was her son. The magazine is about variety and tradition in the Jewish cultural experience. Her next issue will be devoted to Jewish kindergartens -- the future of Jewish life in Germany. The question has shifted from why Jews would choose to live in Germany to how they will grow up as Jews in Germany. The importance of faith assumes greater importance when it is ruthlessly denied. It always does.