Reporter's notebook'We must act decisively against anti-Semitism'

80 years after Kristallnacht, German president lights massive Hanukkah menorah

At Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier tells Jewish community it is ‘a gift that we can reach out to join hands over the chasm of our history’

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the 15th annual Brandenburg Gate Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony, December 2, 2018. (Toby Axelrod/Times of Israel)
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the 15th annual Brandenburg Gate Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony, December 2, 2018. (Toby Axelrod/Times of Israel)

BERLIN – Eighty years after Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” in which Nazis terrorized Jews throughout the German Reich, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was lifted in a cherry picker crane alongside Berlin community Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal to kindle what is billed as Europe’s largest Hanukkah menorah, located at the iconic Brandenburg Gate.

Thanks to a misty rain, the first night of Hanukkah was especially sparkly in Berlin this year. Raindrops settled upon several hundred onlookers gathered for the 15th annual candle-lighting ceremony, refracting the lights of Berlin’s giant Christmas tree and the illuminated 18th-century monument, just east of where the Berlin Wall once loomed.

As Steinmeier and Teichtal lit the menorah, watching below from the cobblestoned plaza were Berlin Mayor Michael Müller; Bundestag member and vice president Petra Pau; Israel’s ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff; US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grennel; Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Gideon Joffe, the head of Berlin’s Jewish community; and numerous children and their parents, noshing on jelly donuts under umbrellas.

The very public display of support for the Jewish community occurred this year against the backdrop of rising concerns about anti-Semitism here in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Five-year-old Berliner Joshua and his father, Leon, at Berlin’s central Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at Brandenburg Gate, December 2, 2018. (Toby Axelrod/Times of Israel)

A recent CNN poll sampling 7,000 Europeans in seven countries found that 28 percent of those surveyed said they believed Jews have “too much influence” in business and finance, while 20% felt Jews had excessive influence in media and politics.

“Anti-Semitism is being expressed openly again, on the streets, in schoolyards, on the internet,” Steinmeier said in remarks to the crowd. “We must act decisively against it,” continued the German president.

Steinmeier further declared to the Jewish community that it was “a gift that we can reach out to join hands over the chasm of our history.”

Sunday’s Hanukkah event in Berlin was one of many celebrations serving as counterpoint to the recent 80th anniversary of the November 9 pogrom against Jews and their property in Nazi-era Germany. The Festival of Lights will also be marked this year in Germany’s capital at a ceremony for some 300 Holocaust survivors, sponsored by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (C) and Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal (R) light a giant Hannukah candelabra in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on December 2, 2018. (Gregor Fischer / dpa / AFP)

The event at Brandenburg Gate was launched by Teichtal in 2003 and has become a fixture of the season, drawing Jews and non-Jews alike. This year, members of the Berlin Philharmonic performed, and the event was capped by a soundtrack of bouncy Hanukkah songs to which a circle of men and boys danced in the rain.

What better way to underscore “the triumph of light over darkness than the president of Germany lighting the first Hanukkah candle,” Teichtal, president and director of Chabad Lubavitch Berlin, told The Times of Israel at a pre-lighting reception hosted by Ambassador Grennel and his partner Matt Lahey at the US Embassy, overlooking the Brandenburg Gate.

Teichtal’s thoughts were echoed by young Chabad emissary Hillel Levinson, 21, who handed out Hanukkah kits to passersby at Sunday’s event.

Chabad Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal and Jewish community leader Josef Schuster light a hanukkah menorah at the United States Embassy, with (from left) US Ambassador Richard Grennel, his partner Matt Lahey, and Israeli Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff. (Toby Axelrod/Times of Israel)

“It’s amazing to see a hanukkiah [Hanukkah menorah] in the place where Hitler spoke about annihilating the Jewish nation, and to see that all the people are coming despite the weather,” said Levinson, who was born in the United States and moved with his parents to Kharkov, Ukraine. He held one box with candles and a menorah in his hand, an had another tucked under his arm.

“I came to help light up Berlin,” said his colleague Mendel Brandwine, 20, whose father is a ritual slaughterer in Iowa. “It’s a real revenge against Hitler,” said Brandwine, whose great-great grandmother died in the Holocaust. He said he would hand out enough Hanukkah kits “to have every Jew covered.”

Chabad’s special mission to Germany

The influx of Chabad emissaries to the city is entirely intentional, explained Teichtal at Sunday’s intimate embassy ceremony. Teichtal came to Berlin with his wife, Leah, in 1996, a few years after the death of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in New York. The rebbe had urged emissaries to go to Germany; the first to do so were Rabbi Yisroel Diskin and his wife, Chana, in 1988, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“It was a wish of the rebbe that Germany should not be ignored,” said Teichtal.

Today, there are 20 Chabad congregations around the country, and each had at least one Hanukkah menorah, according to Teichtal. Publicly advertising the miracle around the world is in keeping with the rebbe’s wish to spread the word about the holiday – and Judaism in general. In Berlin alone there are 25 public menorahs this year, placed strategically around the city, with signs declaring that “Chabad wishes you a joyous Hanukkah.”

View of the Chabad House in Berlin, Germany. January 29, 2015. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were about 25,000 Jews in Germany, most of them survivors from Eastern Europe, and their descendants. After the unification of East and West Germany, there was an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Today, officially there are about 100,000 members, but if one includes those unaffiliated with congregations, the number more than doubles.

Case in point is Berlin, where there are some 10,000 registered members of the community who attend Reform, Masorti, Sephardic, Renewal and traditional congregations. Unofficially, there may be three times as many Jews here, as it is impossible to estimate exactly how many unaffiliated Jews – including Israelis – are living in the capital.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin at the Brandenburg Gate, Berliner Hella Schapiro said she was especially proud of her grandson Moshe, age 12, who had interviewed German President Steinmeier for the newspaper at the Jüdische Traditionsschule (Jewish Traditional School) of Chabad Lubavitch Berlin.

Moshe was one of several pupils who took the stage Sunday to explain the Jewish holiday to anyone who might not be familiar with it. And that would be many, in this mostly Protestant city of about 4 million.

The idea of sharing the holiday of miracles with others prompted Gideon Joffe, head of Berlin’s official Jewish community, to think big: “You have to be an incorrigible optimist,” Joffe told the crowd.

Noting that there are more than 50 Muslim countries in the world, he quipped: “How long will it be before they all have Hanukkah menorahs like this? I suggest we will all live to see it.”

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