Rabbi Dr. Kerry Olitzky, the executive director of the national Jewish Outreach Institute, recently helped spread its concept of “Big Tent” Judaism in Germany.
The North Brunswick resident had the JOI’s signature idea of making Judaism widely accessible and inclusive at the core of his message when he served as a visiting professor June 1-30 at Abraham Geiger Kolleg, the University of Potsdam’s Jewish theological seminary just outside of Berlin.
In a phone interview from JOI’s Manhattan offices following his return, Olitzky said he expected it will take some time for the students he taught “to digest some of the more provocative approaches to outreach, especially those that run counter to German cultural norms.”
For example, one practice he characterized as central to making newcomers to synagogues feel welcome was that of greeting them by helping them find seating or engaging them in friendly conversation. But, Olitzky said, “German culture does not promote intimate exchanges between people who have just met. They don’t engage in small talk with strangers.
“The Germans think if you have said ‘Shabbat shalom’ to someone, you have fulfilled your obligation.”
Even though “it will take them a while to get their arms around it,” he said, he did believe the 30 rabbinical students he worked with — which included one French, one Israeli, and one Russian — were responsive to his ideas.
“Interest in Jewish life is growing” in Germany, he said, as a result of several factors. As many as 200,000 Russian Jews have settled in Germany in the last decade. In addition, approximately 15,000 Israelis are now living in Berlin alone. Throughout the country, increasing numbers of people with Jewish ancestry are reclaiming their roots and there is an emerging phenomenon of Christians converting to Judaism. Because the community is so fragmented and many of the Jews are unaffiliated, however, it’s impossible to determine the exact size of the German-Jewish population, he said.
Olitzky attributes the conversion phenomenon in part to Germans’ “dealing with their checkered past” and the enormity of Nazism and the Holocaust.
Part of his aim in spending the month in Germany was his desire “to help the emerging Jewish community in Germany translate some of our successful models,” said Olitzky. JOI and its “Big Tent” approach to Jewish life have engaged intermarried and unaffiliated American Jews by meeting them “where they are” and sponsoring holiday events and other programs in “low barrier” settings outside of synagogues to help guide them into the community.
Geiger was founded in 1999 as the first academic seminary for rabbis and cantors in continental Europe after the Shoa. Its academic studies are integrated into the University of Potsdam’s Jewish studies program.
Although Geiger has been affiliated with the Reform movement and is accredited by its Central Conference of Rabbis in America, the seminary recently took on a Conservative affiliation through its linkage with Zacharias Frankel College, also in Potsdam.
“What is unique” about the new partnership, said Olitzky, is that the students take the same course of studies but the positions and perspectives of the material and how they choose to practice them is determined by whether they are studying at Geiger or Frankel. “Because the arrangement with Frankel is so new it’s still evolving and the students have not been formally tracked into Reform and Conservative.”
He said that while German Conservative Judaism is similar to what is practiced in the United States, the country’s Reform movement attempts “to reclaim classical 19th-century Reform Judaism” and does not reflect moves by the movement in America, for example, to incorporate more ritual into Jewish life.
One aspect of Jewish life in Berlin that Olitzky found “troubling” is extremely tight security at the city’s Jewish institutions. In addition to being guarded around the clock by German police, every institution employs Israeli security and private security and has cement stanchions at their entrances.
The community’s cumbersome structure also presents barriers, said Olitzky. Funds designated for Jewish institutions are directed by the German government to a central council, which distributes them to local councils, which then pass them on to the local communities that oversee synagogues and institutions. For example, it is the community, rather than the congregation, that hires and pays the salary of a shul’s rabbi and cantor.
Calling it “one of the most interesting months of my life,” Olitzky said he found the Berlin area and Germany in general a place of contradictions and surprises.
While trying to focus on the future, he found the past everywhere — the “stumbling stones” outside houses indicating that Jews had once lived there and were killed during the Holocaust or plaques on apartment buildings noting locations where synagogues formerly stood.
While he admitted that he had expected to dislike the Germans, Olitzky found those he met in Berlin — and the city itself — warm and inviting.
He left with a positive feeling that the Jewish community is determined to overcome any obstacles preventing Jewish life from flourishing once again in Germany.
“I hope that in my time there, I was able to begin a conversation about inclusion and opening the tent of the German-Jewish community that will continue…,” he said, “and one that helps break down the barriers in a country that still has so many conflicting memories.”