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As Berlin Opens Arms to Refugees, Why Are German Jews Silent?

Bolstered by Angela Merkel’s promise that Germany would take in up to 800,000 refugees this year, thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and others fleeing civil war and the violence of the Islamic State group are arriving in this country daily. On the morning of Thursday, September 10, alone, a train with 540 refugees arrived in Berlin from Munich, the southern German city close to the Austrian border.

Videos circulating on Facebook and other social media sites show refugees being welcomed with cheers and pretzels at train stations throughout Germany. In Berlin, the outpouring of civic goodwill and concern has been exemplary, with innumerable clothing and food drives operating out of private apartments, community centers and even chic neighborhood boutiques.

Image by Lior Zaltzman

There are citizens’ initiatives like the sponsor-a-refugee program, which recently opened a center around the corner from my apartment ( Users of a popular listserv for expats post on behalf of refugees seeking rooms and apartments. Another heartening sign was an Arabic-language supplement published September 9 in the conservative tabloids BILD and BZ to help new arrivals orient themselves in Berlin.

In the midst of this flurry of action and concern, the response from Berlin’s Jewish community to the refugee crisis has been sluggish, to say the least.

An edition of Die Welt carried a column ( co-penned by Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, commending Germany for her commitment to aiding the refugees, but stopping short of specific proposals for action. The column also made no mention of measures that Jewish communities could undertake.

By and large, German Jewish community leaders have yet to add their voices to those of Haim Korsa, who is France’s chief rabbi, and Jonathan Sacks of England in urging politicians as well as Europe’s Jews to do all they can to aid the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

One of the few calls to arms has come from the Fraenkelufer Synagogue, a small Conservative synagogue in the hip district of Kreuzberg with an uncommonly young and liberal congregation. On that Thursday, the group Friends of Fraenkelufer, known as FdF, sent out a press release appealing to community members to take action and bring donations for refugees to High Holiday services.

“We’re trying to get the ball rolling in our kehilla” —Hebrew for “community” — “and in the wider Jewish community,” said Josh Weiner, a member of the group who is active in the wider Berlin Jewish community. “The silence there is deafening.”

The press statement put out by FdF explicitly invoked the horrific legacy of German Jewry just three generations ago.

“Jews know first-hand about flight, expulsion and displacement,” it said. “Many of us are members of families with direct experience of such trauma, and most Jews living in Germany are descendants of those who not long ago were forced to flee for their lives.”

The events of World War II, the statement said, “linger deep within the Jewish collective memory, and our obligation to ensure that such inhumanity never again befalls a group of people compels us all the more to action.”

In addition to appealing for donations, FdF plans to visit a refugee center for international Mitzvah Day (November 15) and is co-sponsoring an upcoming panel discussion about religious perspectives on refugee issues.

FdF’s treasurer, William Glucroft agrees that this is only the beginning. “I look forward to seeing Jews and their institutional representatives in Berlin, around Germany and across Europe do for others what by and large was not done for us,” he said.

A.J. Goldmann can be reached at [email protected]

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