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Kol Nidre 5774/2013

09/10/2013 09:43:03 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

100 years ago tonight, on Kol Nidre 5674, 1913, Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most important Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, entered a small Orthodox synagogue in Berlin for what he expected to be the last time he would attend worship services as a Jew. Rosenzweig, who by the way, as best as we know, is not related to my wife who carries the same last name, had become convinced, as did many modern Germans of his day, that the path to success and acceptance in German life was as a Christian. He was raised, as many Jews of his day in Germany, with modest exposure to Jewish life and Jewish learning.   He viewed Judaism as an anachronism – a faith not in touch with the contemporary world of Western Europe.

And so, he decided to become a Christian. He established for himself only one provision: he wished to enter Christianity as did its founders, as a Jew, not as a “pagan.” He walked into that small Orthodox synagogue in Berlin 100 years ago tonight, not with the intention of breaking off from Judaism, but deliberately aiming to “go through” Judaism into Christianity. And so, he decided that he would attend Yom Kippur services to say farewell to his Jewish identity and the Jewish people.

Something entirely unexpected happened to Rosenzweig in that synagogue that night and it changed his life. He wrote a friend: "After prolonged, and I believe, thorough self-examination, I have reversed my decision ... I will remain a Jew."

What he thought he could find in the church only, faith that gives one orientation of the world, he found on that day in the synagogue. For the rest of his life, Rosenzweig devoted himself to Jewish study and teaching, and became one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.

Later on in our service, when I share the bulk of my sermon, I will circle back to this story. For now, I would simply encourage us all to think about what brings us here tonight. I doubt that for many, and perhaps for no one, it is with the intention of being the last time we enter synagogue before saying farewell to our Jewish identity. And while I would be surprised, though delighted, if any of us left tonight or at the end of the day tomorrow as transformed as he did, I wonder if, indeed I hope and I pray that, somehow, somehow, this experience, this day which we enter at this moment can impact each of us enough to make a difference in how we see ourselves and how we live our lives.)

I began our service tonight by sharing the famous story of Franz Rosenzweig, the great Jewish philosopher who was on the brink of conversion to Christianity when, 100 years ago tonight, he decided to attend Kol Nidre services for the last time as a Jew at a small synagogue in Berlin, and came away thoroughly dedicated to Judaism and Jewish life. 

Until a few weeks ago, as significant a role as Berlin has played in modern Jewish history, on both sides of the equation, its actual image remained as vague to me any other place I had never actually seen. To be honest, until recently, I fully expected it to remain that way for the rest of my life.  Neither Irene nor I had Berlin or anywhere else in Germany on the list of places either of us hoped to visit one day. However, my nephew, who now lives in Berlin, got married there a few weeks ago, and so, of course, we booked our flight, and made our way to Berlin, with absolutely no sense of what to expect.

Because we were there for a wedding, we did not have nearly as much time to see the city of Berlin as most others who were there for as long as we were. We crammed in as much activity and sightseeing as possible, which did provide me with a very different image and sense of Berlin than I had expected to experience.

As it turns out, Temple Isaiah members Wendy Liebow and Scott Burson, who have been close friends of my sister and brother-in-law for decades, along with their daughters, Allison and Esther, made the trip as well, and we had the opportunity to share a significant percentage of those activities and sightseeing with them.

What mattered most to me, personally, as you might imagine, was to see Jewish Berlin. There are, however, two different versions of Jewish Berlin. There is the Jewish Berlin of today, undergoing a renaissance unimaginable as recently as 20 years ago, and there is, of course, the historical Jewish Berlin, or perhaps more accurately, the sites in Berlin related to the Jewish experience. Wendy, Scott, Irene and I opted for an Israeli owned company’s private tour of Jewish Berlin, advertised as offering both. It was only afterwards that my nephew expressed his concern that, with an Israeli tour guide, working for an Israeli tour company, we would see, as he put it, “the Holocaust tour” of Berlin. To a certain extent, he was correct: more of what we wound up seeing was related to the history of the Shoah, and to the current efforts to memorialize what took place, partly because we were given options, and made that choice.

Though I had read about it, I was not prepared for the extent or the amount of memorials to the Shoah that abound in Berlin.

The Grunewald train station is located in a leafy, upper-class neighborhood, as it was in the 1930s and 1940s.  Just behind the commuter rail track is Track 17, a former commercial railroad track, which was the site, beginning in 1941, of the deportation of the approximately 55,000 Jews of Berlin who remained in that city. The platform along both sides of the track is marked with 186 cast steel plaques. Each bears the date of the deportation, the number of Jewish victims loaded on each train, and later cattle cars, as well as the final destination and murder site of each train. The plaques are arranged chronologically by date, giving a sense of the progression. I was not prepared for the reaction I had: I realized that for the first time, I was in direct contact with what had been for so many years a powerful, yet abstract story that has informed so much of my identity and existence.  Reading each of the plates was powerful, but even more staggering was the realization that these numbers represented less than 1% of all of those murdered by the Nazis.

From Grunewald, we traveled to Wannsee, an even more beautiful, almost idyllic setting, just inside the Berlin city limits. The name of that place was all too familiar. It was where the January 1942 meeting, commonly known as the Wansee Conference, took place in a building that was formerly the private residence of a wealthy German industrialist. Senior officials of Nazi Germany had been called together by the director of the SS to coordinate the responsibilities of the leaders of the various government departments in the implementation of the final solution to the Jewish question. It was at that conference that it was determined that most of the Jews of German-occupied Europe would be deported to Poland and exterminated. Until last month, Wannsee had always been for me a mythical place, something I could not imagine, but to the extent that I could conjure up an image, it was a dark, otherworldly place.

I was stunned to enter a beautiful, exquisitely refurbished and restored manor house with large, beautiful rooms, high ceilings, and simple elegance. Even having read as much about the Shoah as I have, I was unprepared for the ordinariness of that building. It was easy to imagine a group of people, in this case all men, sitting around a table, coolly discussing the business at hand, and then leaving to go forward and carry out their individual responsibilities much like many of us might attend a business meeting. My image of Wannsee was a mythical place, something so far removed from ordinary human existence that it would be unrecognizable. To the contrary, absent the interpretive materials that line the walls, it could have been just another beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood. That short visit, more than any other experience I have had in my life, help me more fully grasp the famous term coined by Hannah Arendt, writing about Eichmann specifically, and the Nazi effort generally: the banality of evil. The cold efficiency and businesslike manner with which the Nazis undertook their efforts was underscored by a factoid of which I had never previously been aware: that entire conference, which set forth the blueprint for the annihilation of millions, lasted a mere 90 minutes.

From Wansee, we went back to the heart of the city, and were exposed to a number of other significant historical sites and memorials. The one, or more accurately the ones, that that stayed with me the most, were what I came to learn are called Stolpersteine, literally translated as "stumbling blocks," small, cobblestone-sized brass memorials for the victims of the Nazis.  Set into the pavement of sidewalks in front of the buildings where Nazi victims once lived or worked, they call attention both to the individual victims and the scope of the Nazi war crimes. This form of memorial has caught on, and now extends well beyond Berlin:  there are now 38,000 Stolpersteine in 12 European countries and in over 800 cities and municipalities of Germany, making the project the world's largest memorial. Once we became aware of them, we noticed them all over.

Memory of the Shoah and of the Nazi era seems to pervade Berlin. We did not manage to visit the best known memorials in Berlin, including the Holocaust Memorial, which we did pass while riding a sightseeing bus; we did, however, see and were astounded by the extraordinary number of German and English language sign and poster installations all around the city recalling and outlining the Nazis rise to power, and various aspects of the Shoah itself. They were in subway stations, in and around large public squares, and various other places throughout the city. If I ever wondered whether Berlin, at least, took its history seriously, that question has certainly been resolved.

I do not know how much that is true for the rest of Germany. To the extent that Irene and I were able to communicate with the Germans we met who live in other parts of the country, we did not especially get the impression that it is. And we were told repeatedly how different Berlin is than the rest of the country - in fact, at one point, my new niece, who grew up in a town in Bavaria, told me that she feels as if she left Germany, and moved to Berlin.

Even if there is little recognition of the Shoah outside of Berlin other than the aforementioned Stolpersteine, the fact that there is so much of it in Berlin today is astounding. In fact, many of us in this room can easily remember a time when what I have just described would have seemed nothing short of miraculous.

It is worth mentioning, however, that none of these memorials sprang up overnight, and that the process of owning that part of German history was neither smooth nor linear. Given the anti-Semitism that was rampant, and to some extent, the official government policy of East Germany, it is no surprise that few memorials appeared there.  As for West Berlin, some of those with whom we spoke suggested that it took as long as it did for memorials to arise in part due to the “problematic history” of so many in the country’s leadership, making it difficult for the society as a whole to grapple with what had taken place.

In fact, it is only since unification that Berlin has begun to own and deal with its dark past. The memorial at Grunewald station, for example, only came into being when the former East and West German railway companies were merged to form one new entity.  Neither of the two previously existing ones was willing to do so.  Before unification, it was easy enough for both governments to disown their collective history.  Perhaps now,  the management board of the new unified authority decided it would no longer whitewash its history or choose which events in its past it wished to remember, and perhaps now, they realized that doing so would only impede their ability to move forward.

It took time, and it took reunification for Berlin to get to where it is today. And yet…… And yet…… My nephew was right to be concerned that the only image I would have of Jewish life in Berlin today would be that of Holocaust and Nazi era memorials.

But Jewish life in Berlin is not only about memorials. There is a dynamic, active Jewish community in Berlin, and while it is small compared to the Jewish population of the United States, the Jewish community of Germany is now the eighth largest and the fastest-growing one in the world. On the Shabbat that we were in Berlin, Scott, Wendy, Allison, Esther, Irene and I attended services at the magnificent Rykestraße Synagogue.  It was badly damaged on Kristallnacht, but the structure itself was left standing, as it is wedged between residential buildings, and there was concern about the non-Jewish residents of those buildings.. Having seen pictures of the sanctuary that was reconstructed in the mid-1990s, it was high on my list. And it was indeed magnificent. But more magnificent than the setting was the content. We arrived early, and noticed what can only be called a Tot Shabbat taking place in a side room. By the time services began, there were many hundreds of us in the room. There was norabbi that evening, but I stopped to chat with one of the two cantors after services, quickly discovering that he is an Israeli, studying at the Abraham Geiger College, the liberal Jewish seminary founded in 1999, the first academic seminary for rabbis and cantors established in Continental Europe after the Shoah. I gave him my card, and he sent an email last week to wish me and our entire congregation a happy and healthy new year.

Since they were traveling as a family of four, Scott and Wendy rented an apartment near the hotel where the rest of us were staying, and we gathered there for Shabbat dinner. It was an experience previously unimaginable well into my adult life:  sitting down to Shabbat dinner in the former East Berlin, having just walked home from Shabbat services at a magnificent synagogue which was once in ruins.   During our walk from the synagogue to Shabbat dinner, we passed a man whose dress marked him as a traditionally observant Jew. It gave me particular pleasure to say “Shabbat shalom” to him as we passed one another, as he returned the greeting with a smile on his face.

This is the story of modern-day Berlin, and in many ways, it can serve as a model, especially on this day, for each of us. The message is simple: neither the world,  nor we, need to remain as it or we have been. How many of us who are old enough to remember the Berlin Wall, for whom the term The Iron Curtain still carries such power, could have imagined at one point in time other examples, would have believed everything I just shared?  Other examples abound throughout human history, but tonight, I ask you to consider the one I have brought before us: when there is a willingness to own and acknowledge our past, when there is a desire to make things different than they have been, to set right what we can, we and our world are transformed. And if we are prepared to acknowledge and take responsibility, individually and communally for that which cannot be changed, we can, at least, lay the foundation for others to come along and rebuild even were we cannot.

We are no more fated to be the people we are today than Germany was fated to be in 1945, in 1961, or in 1988.

A story: Once, a king had a precious ring. It was a beautiful, big ruby set in gold. The only thing more precious to the king than his ring was his son, a toddler, who was sometimes a little wild. The boy loved the ring as well. One day, he ran up to the throne and grabbed the ring from his father’s hand. Before anyone could stop him, the ring flew out of the boy’s chubby fingers and skidded across the marble floor.

The ruby, to everyone’s horror, was scratched. The king called all the jewelers of the land to see if they could repair it. All of them inspected the ring, shook their heads, and told him nothing could be done. Finally, an older woman, a master jeweler, stepped up. She asked to take the ring to her workshop for a week. At the end of the week, she stepped into the throne room with the ring. Everyone held their breath. The king unwrapped the ring, and he smiled. The jeweler had not erased the crack. Instead, she had carved around it. The crack was now the stem of a beautiful rose.

The city of Berlin, and to at least some extent, the entire nation that is modern-day Germany, has taken the deep scratch, the scar in its soul, that had been ignored for so long, and begun to work hard at turning it into something beautiful. From what I observed and experienced, they have succeeded beyond what any of us could have imagined a short time ago.  But it has only been able to do so after reunification, and by owning and acknowledging that very deep scar.  And even now, though neither Berlin nor Germany cannot fully redeem its past, the foundation has been laid for continued opportunity to carve a rose out of that stem.

The same is true for each of us. We all have scratches, all have scars in our souls, some of us deep scratches, deep scars, in our souls. We can choose to ignore them, or we can decide to turn those scratches and scars into the stems of flowers that bring deeper beauty and meaning to our own lives, but only if we are prepared to own them and acknowledge them, and possibly only after reunification of the fragmented pieces of our souls.  And knowing that we cannot change those scratches, or those scars themselves, but that we can incorporate them into who we are determined to be can we achieve something even more beautiful -- and even if we cannot achieve the full beauty to which we aspire, we can lay the foundation for the opportunity to carve something more beautiful out of that stem.

100 years ago tonight, Franz Rosenzweig stepped into that small shul in Berlin, never imagining where being in synagogue for Kol Nidre would lead.  Perhaps, if not as dramatically, the same might be true for at least some of us……

Hashiveinu Adonai v’nashuva – chadesh yameinu k’kedem …….Turn us, Oh God, and we shall return…… Renew our days as of yore……..

And if you are inclined, I invite you to say


Tue, August 9 2022 12 Av 5782