Berlin Jews formally welcome Israelis long in their midst

Berlin Jews formally welcome Israelis long in their midst

New initiative seeks to ease arrival of expats and bridge gaps between natives and newcomers

A crowd of about 150 Israeli expats gathered at Berlin's New Synagogue recently to learn about the Jewish Community's new Israeli Department. (Lara Altmann)
A crowd of about 150 Israeli expats gathered at Berlin's New Synagogue recently to learn about the Jewish Community's new Israeli Department. (Lara Altmann)

BERLIN — Last year, Ilan Oraizer decided he’d had enough of Ashdod, and moved with his family to Berlin.

In Israel, he says, his daughter’s hair was falling out in patches from stress over the constant threat of Hamas rockets, which have repeatedly hit the seaside town. Oraizer‘s wife holds a German passport, and the pair hoped emigrating to Germany’s tranquil capital would help her heal.

In October, the family completed its relocation, and Oraizer, 42, started wondering what kind of support Israelis could get from the local Jewish community.

At a meeting of “the Israeli table” — a monthly gathering organized by a longtime expat — Oraizer asked a member of the board of the Jewish Community of Berlin why Israelis, who have been flocking to Berlin in growing numbers in recent years, don’t receive organized help in integrating or dealing with German authorities. “I told her there was a lot of resentment,” he recalled.

The result is the community’s new Israeli Department, which officially launched this month. Oraizer is its head.

"For too long, we have done too little," Berlin Jewish leader Gideon Joffe said of efforts to integrate Israeli expats. (Lara Altmann)
“For too long, we have done too little,” Berlin Jewish leader Gideon Joffe said of efforts to integrate Israeli expats. (Lara Altmann)

As Israelis have learned, Berlin’s Jewish community has a complicated history with outsiders. The birthplace of the Jewish Enlightenment and Reform Judaism, it has often been less progressive in accepting newcomers, partly out of fears relating to its own vulnerable status. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, native German Jews often referred to Jewish immigrants from Eastern European as “Ostjuden,” literally “Eastern Jews,” but a term that carries a note of derision. Ultimately, the old-timers’ attempts to distance themselves meant little — Berlin’s Jewish community as a whole was almost completely exterminated during the Holocaust.

After the war, the small community consisted mostly of refugees from Eastern Europe. It expanded rapidly following the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the German government, eager to revive the country’s Jewish life, offering generous benefits to immigrants. About 20,000 chose Berlin, and half today are registered as official members of the community. They were joined over the past five years by a wave of Israelis — including Oraizer and his family — numbering between 5,000 and 15,000, according to estimates by the Israeli embassy in Berlin.

About 150 showed up for the launch of the new initiative, held in the renovated New Synagogue, which also serves as the offices of the community. There they found a buffet with hummus and little Israeli flags on the chairs. The message, clearly, was that they were welcome.

“For too long, we have done too little,” said Dr. Gideon Joffe, the Israeli-born chairman of the Jewish Community’s board, who moved to Germany as a child. “We’ve heard a lot about Israelis coming to Berlin, but until now, we’ve done little to help them. That has changed … Thanks to Ilan, we are here now to serve you. The Jewish Community needs to be the first stop of every Israeli moving to Berlin.”

Oraizer was also in full crowd-pleasing mode, promising support for the many Israeli artists and musicians who have flocked to Berlin, and for students learning in Germany. By the time he got to making fun of German bureaucrats’ odd habit of speaking German, rather than Hebrew, while meeting with Israelis, someone in the crowd corrected him: “We have to learn their language!” Undeterred, Oraizer responded, “I want to open a bakum” — an IDF enlistment center — “for Israelis in Berlin.”

The speech received a mixed response.

“This is exactly what I came here to escape,” said a young graphic designer, who preferred not to provide her name. “This mentality of getting as much as you can from the authorities, of not respecting them and of laughing about their behavior.”

The older generation was less skeptical.

Ilan Oraizer moved to Berlin seeking an easier life for his Israeli family. (Lara Altmann)
Ilan Oraizer moved to Berlin seeking an easier life for his Israeli family. (Lara Altmann)

“This moves me to tears,” said Amir Kusinski, who moved to Germany 20 years ago. “The Jewish community never welcomed us Israelis before. For me, this is an amazing development. Even coming up here, I saw all the Hebrew signs pointing to the event. We never so much as got a sign pointing us to the bathroom in Hebrew before.”

Asked to explain the shift in attitude, Joffe said, “The time was simply right.”

Eight of the board’s 21 members now speak Hebrew, some after learning it in school, and others because they’ve lived in Israel. This “enables the organization as a whole to open up to Israelis,” he noted. “We are all brothers, and we should help each other.”

Behind the scenes, some in the crowd speculated that the community’s new inclusiveness is more about politics and money: In Germany, officially registering with a religious community means paying more in taxes, which are in turn allocated to that community. Exempt from paying, however, are students, the unemployed and recently arrived immigrants — groups to which many of Berlin’s Israeli expats belong. In other words, the Jewish community stands to receive additional government support by enlisting new members, who are more likely to join if they don‘t need to pay extra taxes.

For Ilan Weiss, who has organized the so-called Israeli table for the past 14 years, the skepticism is unfounded.

“The speculation and the criticism of the younger generation will disappear if they choose to stay in Berlin and have children,” he said. “They will immediately feel the need for a community, and for the first time, they will find it here. Israelis will pay for membership because they will get something in return.

“For me,” he went on, “there is a real visible shift, a real understanding from the leaders of the community, that the future of Jews in Berlin will [also] be in Hebrew.”

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