Optional by Jessie Atkin

Even though I don’t “keep Shabbat” in the traditional sense – I do not regularly go to services or avoid electronics and cars – I do try to keep Shabbat by prioritizing things that bring me contentment and joy. Those things often include my family, friends, literature, art, theater, and beyond. That’s why I was grateful that the Germany Close Up program not only put together an incredible itinerary of activities, excursions, and speakers, but also made sure that there were a few moments where programming was optional, or a few hours were free. It allowed me to spend a day in Berlin, in this case, Shabbat, in a way of my choosing, to find a moment of personal joy and connection.

No members of my family came from Germany and, fortunately, everyone from Eastern Europe had immigrated before World War II. My family connection to Germany comes from the Cold War when my father visited Berlin when the wall was still standing. Checkpoint Charlie was not a tourist destination and Instagram hotspot, but a largely intimidating, very real crossing between two worlds. It was important to me to be able to take more than a moment, to pass by the wall, to walk on both sides, with no checkpoint or no man’s land barring my way in the middle.

I was lucky enough to have two friends join me on a visit to the East Side Gallery, an open-air art gallery that now exists on the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall. We could see the official artwork on the east side and the general graffiti on the west side. We could hop back and forth, with no one to stop us, no barbed wire or watchtowers in sight. Many of the art pieces included words and images of hope and change. Some included English, but many were in German, which I could not read. But art transcends borders and languages, and messages were clear. Change is slow, but it can take place. Both the Germany Close Up program and my visit to the East Side Gallery made that loud and clear.

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