Do Jews get a discount when they buy a car? Do they own McDonald’s? Do Jews control the media and international banking? Do any of them live here anymore?
These are among the questions German schoolchildren ask Jews who volunteer in a new outreach program with the provocative name “Rent A Jew.”
The Jews in question are not actually “rented,” since they volunteer their time. But they do present themselves as living exhibits of something young Germans hear about constantly — thanks to their curricula on Germany and to the Holocaust — but rarely see: living, talking, walking Jews as they live their lives today.
The program — launched in 2015 by the Munich-based European Janusz Korczak Academy in collaboration with the Jewish Agency for Israel, which provides funding – is beginning to catch on. The program, which visited just one school in its inaugural year, presented a “rented” Jew to students in five schools in 2016. For 2017 Rent a Jew has booked its presentation in 24 schools for just the first five months, through May.
Many of these schools are in small towns, such as Gross Kreutz or Meuncheberg, where there are no Jews at all today.
In fact, most Germans have never met a Jew, according to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s public broadcasting system. There are 100,000 Jews registered with Jewish communities in Germany, a tiny fraction of Germany’s population of 82.7 million. The number would be higher if Jews who choose not to register were included.
Many Germans see Jews in the abstract because they have no contact with them. “Our job in Germany is to replace the abstract with real Jews and establish personal rapport,” said Alexander Rasumny, 33, Rent A Jew’s project coordinator.
For many young Germans, the Holocaust, taught in all German schools, is their only association with Jews. And this emphasis encourages them to view Jews as perpetual victims.
“Reducing Jews to largely nameless victims creates adverse associations and reinforces age-old tropes about Jews allegedly profiting from their misfortunes,” said Deidre Berger, director of AJC’s Berlin office.
Mascha Schmerling, 36, raised in the former Soviet Union, said volunteering to speak at German schools has strengthened her Jewish identity. The young mother, now living in Hamburg, said Jews hid their identity in the Soviet Union, noting that identification as “Jew” on the Soviet passport had a negative connotation.
Schmerling, a communications expert, arrived in Germany with her mother in 1992, among the refugees who now constitute 80% of Germany’s Jewish population. Most emigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism in the late 1980’s and ’90s.
“We are telling people who we are. We are not letting other people define us,” she said, describing her work with Rent A Jew.
Although not observant, Schmerling says she’s learning more about Judaism to better explain her religion to students. Many of the volunteers, proud to be Jewish, believe it’s not necessary to be observant to claim their Jewish identity.
Schmerling recently encountered Jewish stereotypes at a school in Solingen in northwest Germany. When she talked about her childhood in the Soviet Union and showed a picture of her great-great-grandfather and his family, one teenager exclaimed, “They look rich,” making a stereotypical association between Jews and money.
“He was not rich at all,” Schmerling replied, joking that he didn’t leave her any money. She explained to the class that few had cameras in those days. On special occasions, like posing for a family picture, poor people wore the only good clothes they had.
Of the 20 students in the class, only five had ever met a Jew. Schmerling said German youngsters are often awkward when they meet Jews, because after all they’ve learned about the Holocaust, they don’t know how to act.
Volunteer Monty Aviel Zeev Ott, 25, said the emphasis on the Holocaust in German schools leaves students with feelings of guilt. “That’s not right,” he said. “Teachers should be talking about German responsibility to never let this happen again.”
Visits also elicit questions about Israel, particularly in schools in predominantly Muslim immigrant neighborhoods.
“Why is Israel fighting a war against the Palestinians?” a student asked at the Walter Gropius School, in Berlin’s largely immigrant neighborhood of Neukölln.
“I am not an Israeli,” responded volunteer Esther Knochenhauer, 32. “I see myself as a German Jew of Russian background.”
Notwithstanding the funding the program receives from the Jewish Agency, volunteers establish their German Jewish identity and acknowledge the Jewish connection with Israel, but avoid getting mired in the complexity of the conflict in the Middle East.
A teacher, Inga Kreuder, 31, invited Rent A Jew to the Walter Gropius School after overhearing a student exchange. “Why aren’t there any Jews in Germany?” one student asked another. The response came quickly: “Many of them were killed in the Holocaust.” Neither seemed to understand that Jews and Judaism are still a living phenomenon, including in Germany.
Kreuder said she thought Rent A Jew would help her students better understand Jewish life in contemporary Germany.
Berger praises the program as a creative and unconventional way to counteract increasingly open manifestations of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. For young Jews, she said, “reaching out to non-Jews to explain more about Judaism is a refreshingly bold and innovative approach… to help their German counterparts overcome their fear of the other, including Jews.”
Contact Don Snyder at firstname.lastname@example.org