A Closer Look at Berlin and Germany

18 Jewish young adults discover the Germany of today

“I had no idea.”

When I took 17 young professionals – a mix of recent Bay Area Birthright Israel participants and group leaders – on a nine-day study trip to Berlin, Germany, this past March, the idea was to provide a worthy follow-up to the Birthright experience: an engaging, experiential learning opportunity that would resonate far beyond the short time frame of the actual trip. The San Francisco-based Federation partnered with the Germany Close Up Foundation (becoming the first federation in the country to do so), which is a German government-funded encounter program for Jewish North American young adults to learn about Jewish heritage, modern Germany, and transatlantic relations. 

Through guided tours of historical sites and museums, meetings with German politicians, government officials, NGOs, leaders of the Berlin Jewish community, and German peers, our group learned a great deal about the way Germany continues to absorb the lessons of the Holocaust in contemporary society, politics, and international relations. In reflecting on their experience, many of the participants expressed surprise (“I had no idea”) and admiration for Germany’s commitment to human dignity, the preservation of memory, and the use of the lessons of history in today’s decision-making. “History is so present in society here,” said one participant. “It really has an influence, and reminds us that the future is unwritten and we can grow from it.”

Our Germany trip was also an emotional one, with both the highs and lows that come from contemplating a terrible past while also celebrating today’s successes. While grappling with the Holocaust is an essential part of the Germany experience for Jews (our tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, on a bitterly cold day, was particularly poignant), Germany Close Up provided a more holistic experience that enabled us to experience modern Germany, and the contemporary Jewish community, in a way that didn’t keep us focused solely on the past.

Many participants considered the highlight of the trip to be the Friday night Shabbat service and dinner hosted for us by the Jewish community associated with the Fraenkelufer Synagogue, one of many relatively small but thriving Jewish communities in post-Cold War Berlin. “I’ve never experienced that kind of Shabbat before,” said one participant, who is fairly new to Jewish life. With much singing, toasting, good food, fascinating company, and a warm and inviting Shabbat celebration, “I was rejuvenated by Shabbat and now I’m sad to be leaving Berlin,” said another participant.

Ultimately, our week of intensive learning, emotional encounters, and intimate discussions led nearly all of the participants to reflect that the experience left them feeling more connected to the Jewish community, and wanting to learn more, study more, and tell others about what they learned. “Gratitude” was a word often used, as was a sense that their perspectives had changed after what they experienced. “In thinking about German culture versus American culture, we Americans complain about things that aren’t a big deal,” said one participant. “So my perspective when I get home is about trying to make the best of the life I have.”

Jason Harris is the Birthright Experience Program Manager at the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.

Categories: Young Adults, Overseas


June 02, 2016