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Rejecting the Unknown

by Klaus

Today is Yom Kippur. It’s he highest holiday on the Jewish calendar. Unlike the main Christian holidays it’s a rather serious affair. It’s a day of forgiveness and jews spend it fasting and in deep prayer.

On that day a right wing extremist in Germany tried to gain access to a synagogue in the town of Halle. He failed to get in but two people were shot and killed outside.

Many people German and around the world are shocked and sad. Fortunately many Germans including the chancellor are gathering around synagogues tonight as a sign of support.

Am I surprised about any of this? Not at all.

Anti-semitism around the world is well and alive. Germany has a much lower level of tolerance for anti-semitism compared to the rest of the world. It’s under more scrutiny due to its history.

Only a few people living in Germany today were alive during the Holocaust aka Shoa. Yet, the younger generations are by no means off the hook. They carry a shared responsibility to make sure that Germany will never harbor such atrocities again and make sure that jews in Germany, in Israel and around the world can feel safe. No, these generations are not guilty of the doings of their forefathers but they can not escape their historic responsibility.

Being born in 1966 meant that I am part of the group mentioned above. Taking another citizenship does not change anything about that.

I grew up in a Germany full of trauma around its recent history. A lot of things would just not be talked about. Many wounds had not healed and still had band-aids on them. Yes what happened during the 3rd Reich was horrible. That was commonly understood. But there was this thick blanket of silence. Unlike today there was also no holocaust denying to speak of. It would just get you in prison in Germany. Unlike today these boundaries weren’t really being tested.

There were also no Stolpersteine reminding us of the disappearance of Jewish life during the 3rd Reich. In addition to that there was also hardly any visible Jewish life for us to experience. The Jewish quarters were gone. I didn’t know a single Jew in my entire circle of friends. There were a few Jews in public life that we all knew but that was the extend of my contacts into the Jewish community.

A synagogue was built in my hometown Darmstadt in order to make up for the one(s) destroyed during the Reichskristallnacht in 1938. It was built right across from my grandmother’s flat. I was a daily visitor at my grandma’s and even spent over a year living there during my high school years. As a political person I was very interested in everything related to the Holocaust. How we could work towards true healing and prevent any flares of antisemitism in Germany to ever pop again? The new synagogue in Darmstadt was surrounded by high walls and solid fences. I walked by every day but there was no way to gain access. I could see a few people entering and leaving on Friday nights. Otherwise the place looked like a deserted fortress. It was always protected by the local police. This made my grandma’s flat was one of the safest places in town.

Beyond the physical walls there were also the invisible ones. It never felt like there is any outreach of the Jewish community to introduce themselves to their neighbors.

So here I am as a teenager interested in building bridges, curious to learn about anything related to history of the 20th century and I was at a total impasse.

Let’s fast forward 30 years. Today my brother Felix lives across from a synagogue in Koeln. It’s a very similar scenario as with my grandma’s place. You see it every day, you walk by every day. The police guards the place 7×24. This community is also very reclusive. Yes, there are Stolpersteine all over Cologne’s sidewalks (just as in many other German cities). But there is still very little interaction between Germany’s mostly non-religious population and the German jews living right in the midst of it. Most German have never experienced a passover meal or taken part in any of the countless other Jewish traditions.

I had to come all the way to Colorado and meet my partner over six years ago to have some doors open up for me. As the cantor of a progressive Jewish community, she insisted that I attend a service and see her in full swing. Rosh Hosanna 2013 was the first time I ever stepped into a synagogue aka schul. It was a busy and bustling place, much more alive than any of the few Christian services that I had attended at prior times of my life.

My girlfriend had told her friends about me in advance. So here is this German-American guy, sitting among many jews that had lost dozens of family members during the holocaust. What happened? Everyone was extremely welcoming. They all new that I’m completely non-religious. Did they make me feel like an outsider? No, rather the opposite. These good people took me in right away. Today, I feel very lucky to have many close ties into this community.

Yes, the Jewish calendar can feel a bit overwhelming at times. It’s worse than being a football aka soccer fan. After the game is before the game. My girlfriend will come home tonight after 3 weeks of intense preparation and participating in what’s called the High Holy Days. Tomorrow she’ll start prepping for the next event called Sukkot which lasts a week. And yes, there will be more things to acknowledge before Hannukah comes around.

My girlfriend doesn’t eat pork. That’s her choice and doesn’t limit what I eat. Our kitchen is not kosher and neither are the kitchens of most of our friends. She does have a stronger preference to rest on Saturday versus me thinking of Sunday as that day. Neither the Rabbi nor any other community member thinks any less of me for not being Jewish. When we had just met my partner thought for a brief time that I might possibly join her tribe. I made very clear that Religion is just not for me. No one else has ever tried to convert me.

If we do talk politics and it comes to Israel then you’ll find most of my Jewish friends in Boulder rather critical of the current government. When I traveled to Israel this year I was encouraged by them to visit the West Bank (which I did) in order to get the full picture.

I’ve had the front row now for over 6 years. Judaism has been demystified for me. Yes this tribe is very progressive and most communities in Germany and other places in Europe tend to be more conservative or orthodox. It feels more diverse than the different flavors of Christianity present in Germany.

Why am I writing all this? For the most part German are still in the unknown when it comes to Judaism. Their knowledge stems from a few exhibitions and movies about the Shoa. Some have had the opportunity to travel to Israel but might not have significant interaction with the local community. Jokes and stereotypes disparaging jews are still widespread in Germany. Conspiracy stories about Jews dominating the financial world order are still deeply rooted in society. The German police and military are known to be “blind on the right eye”, meaning that right wing tendencies are often tolerated or won’t lead to more than a gentle slap on the wrist. They are certainly far away from a no tolerance policy.

This is coupled with a new form of imported anti-semitism stemming from an increasing muslim population with inherent resentment against anything related to Judaism.

The outcry about today attack reminds of the gun law debate in the US. At the day of the event everyone throws their arms up and “something” most be done. Eventually the outrage ebbs off and the next incident occurs.

Is there a way to stop this lethal cycle? I think so. My suggested approach would be to de-stigmatize Judaism by greatly increasing the connection points between Jewish and non-jewish life. Both sides would need to united in that effort. Hiding Judaism in Germany would be the last thing to do to make it any safer.

A lot of skepticism could be eradicated by a more widespread understanding that this community is not a threat. They simply live peacefully among us. They don’t try to convert anyone. There is no “deep state” agenda.

I find that many of my friends put a strong emphasis on education. That might create the appearance that Jews are more successful compared to the overall population. Even if that were so it’d be an earned success and not a reason for resentment.

Without going too much into history it’s pretty easy to understand that Jews have been a constant target in Western history. They’ve never been the attackers, in most case they didn’t even defend themselves. That only changed with the creation of the state of Israel.

Yet, this post is specifically not about Israel. That’s a whole other topic. This is simply about Jewish life in our communities.

As for that man and his companions that planned and executed today’s attack: You picked the least target for your anger. A defenseless group of people in deep prayer for forgiveness!

In order to serve your hate you could as well have gotten into the woods and punch a rock. In that event two innocent people would still be alive and there would be less fear in a community that is already full of trauma. Yes you didn’t know anything about this community, otherwise you would have never attempted your attack. This does not justify anything you did. Shame on you!

A friendly reminder to anyone hearing derogatory comments about any kind of minority: your silence will by default be construed as condescending. You might want to think about speaking up and drawing some lines. It might lead to some distress in your personal network. But society as a whole will greatly benefit from it.

And yes, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Let all own our piece.

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