Reflecting on our intensive and immersive 10 day trip in Germany, my mind keeps going back to the Friday evening services and Shabbat dinner spent at Fraenkelufer Synagoge in Berlin. Shabbat has famously been referred to as an Oasis in Time. It is a day that is separated and elevated from all other days of the week, in which individuals experience the pleasures of creation and spending time with the community. This Shabbat in Berlin was different. This Shabbat was an Oasis in Time and Space.
The entire week leading up to services, our group has experienced Berlin through the lens of “memorial culture”. We focused on the past and what was lost as we visited historical sites and monuments: we have read about anti-Jewish laws instituted by the Nazi party in the 1930s, we have visited locations where synagogues were destroyed during Kristallnacht and during the allied bombings of Berlin, we have learned about the detailed plans and actions taken to annihilate Eastern European Jewry, and we have toured the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where numerous groups of people were subject to forced labour and brutal deaths. In contrast to these sites that engulf the city, Fraenkelufer was a different space which brought together past and present Jewish life in Berlin. Built in 1916, Fraenkelufer synagogue once housed 2000 people in its main sanctuary. With that section of the synagogue having been destroyed at the end of the war, the main sanctuary can now accommodate 200 people. Nowadays, the synagogue is home to a vibrant community, attended by locals and tourists with different levels of observance united by their Jewish identities.
Our group was fortunate to attend Fraenkelufer’s first ever Kabbalat Shabbat service led by a woman, Nina. The energy in the room was unlike any service I have experienced before. As the harmonies were swirling in the air, I was feeling a mixture of pride to be Jewish, joy to be together as a community with people I have never met before but felt connected to, and a lingering sadness over what was lost. As I looked up, I noticed a beautiful Star of David engraved on the ceiling and thought to myself how fortunate it is that we are here. In this place where Jewish identity was once a death sentence, we are now able to pray loudly and proudly as Jews. Two little girls were running and skipping throughout the sanctuary during the service; instead of finding it disruptive, as I usually would back home in Toronto, I was so happy. I was watching our Jewish future blossoming in a place where our roots were cut. Finally, looking to the left from where I was sitting, I saw an Ark cover serving as a wall hanging. I could not read the Hebrew text clearly from a distance, but it looked to me like it said “הווה אחר”, which translates to “a different present day”. After the service, I walked up to the hanging to verify the text, which actually read “יקוק אחד”, meaning “G-d is one”. During this Oasis in Time and Space at Fraenkelufer, I felt both ways: I felt G-d’s oneness uniting the Jewish community and felt blessed to be living in this different present day, where I can be proud to be a Jew in Berlin.