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Conference Grapples With Faith in Germany

June 21, 2007 By:
Rachel Silverman, JE Feature
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Jalda Rebling lives in Berlin, and her mother survived the Holocaust. Yet Rebling, who works as a cantor, doesn't want to think only of the past.

"The trauma of the Shoah is in our bones, our DNA," Rebling wrote in an e-mail. "But we cannot build up a future in only looking backwards. For my children and grandchildren, I want to create a joyful Jewish life."

Still, Rebling has many unanswered questions: What will this new brand of Judaism look like? How will it take shape? And who will help guide the future of Jewish life in Germany?

In May, two Philadelphians -- husband-and-wife Rabbi Marcia Prager and Cantor Jack Kessler -- went to Berlin to help chart a course for European Jewry.

The three-day conference they attended was hosted by an organization called Ohel Hachidush: The Tent of Renewal. Founded by Rebling in November 2006, the group seeks to reinvigorate Jewish life throughout Europe using an approach called Jewish renewal.

According to the organization's Web site, Jewish renewal is a transdenominational movement that seeks to infuse creativity, mysticism, meditation and social relevance into traditional Jewish practice. Though it began with two Lubavitch rabbis in the 1960s (and thus continues to be called neo-Chasidism), modern-day renewal borrows heavily from Buddhism, Sufism and other religious traditions.

The conference in Berlin, which was held at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, drew about 50 community leaders from Germany, Norway, Italy and the Netherlands. Sessions included topics like "Women and Tallit" and Eco-Kashrut. Other program elements were a Kabbalat Shabbat service, a feminist commentary on the Talmud and a walking tour of Berlin's Jewish sights.

Prager and Kessler -- the only American attendees -- were invited to join because they are leaders of an international Jewish renewal movement called ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

During the conference, Prager, who also acts as the rabbi at the Mount Airy-based P'nai Or Congregation, and Kessler, who trains cantorial students at Gratz College, said they strived to create an aura of celebration around Judaism.

"There are so many young people [in Germany] for whom the word Jew is a curse word -- something attached to anti-Semitism," said Prager. "I wanted to teach them about the creative project of reinvention, and to help them find a style of Jewish prayer and practice that brings joy and meaning into their lives."

But forging such a community, she argued, shouldn't mean a complete return to the ways of pre-1939 Jewry.

"One impulse when there's tremendous destruction is to restore life as it was," explained the rabbi. "But you can't live in a museum. A living culture embraces all the gifts of the present -- feminism, ecological awareness, new forms of expression."

Another factor affecting Germany today is demography, said Prager. Since the Holocaust, the country has seen an influx of Jews from the Soviet Union, Israel and other nations. In addition, the community has witnessed a growing number of interfaith couples, as well as Christians seeking to reclaim their lost Jewish identity.

But, according to Rebling, individuals in these categories often feel disconnected from the larger Jewish establishment.

"Many Jews in Germany cannot find, or don't want to find, their place in the mostly traditional communities," said Rebling. "The power of traditional Judaism doesn't work for many of us."

Prager and Kessler said that they tried to create cohesion and openness by inviting individuals to speak out publicly about their family histories, and by encouraging individual participation through song, meditation and Torah readings.

Kessler added that he tried to cut down on the amount of Hebrew by alternating Hebrew verses with German ones chanted by Rebling, and by teaching songs with mostly wordless melodies.

"It's tremendously powerful to be able to own the tradition in a way that works for you," said Kessler.

Prager agreed: "We wanted the service to move from an impenetrable recitation to an emotionally powerful experience."

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