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Out of the synagogue, into the shelter: When Berlin Jews, refugees bond

On annual Mitzvah Day, members of Jewish community volunteer with children living in German center, offering language lessons to adults

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Member's of Berlin's Jewish community volunteer with refugee children at the Spandau refugee center, with arts and crafts in front and face painting in back. November 13, 2016. (Courtesy)
Member's of Berlin's Jewish community volunteer with refugee children at the Spandau refugee center, with arts and crafts in front and face painting in back. November 13, 2016. (Courtesy)

BERLIN, Germany — Several members of Berlin’s Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue played with dozens of shrieking children, swatting around balloons, painting the kids’ faces and playing table soccer. Other volunteers, clad in lime green shirts with the words “one good deed leads to the next” in German and Hebrew, gave language lessons at a picnic table outside the screened-in kids’ room.

The Jewish Berliners were volunteering at the city’s Spandau refugee shelter for the German Jewish community’s annual Mitzvah Day on Sunday. The event was part of an ongoing effort by the synagogue and other Jewish groups in the country to volunteer with refugees and migrant workers who have arrived in Europe over the past year.

The volunteers hope to both help the refugees and familiarize them with Jewish people in a positive way, and they continue with the work despite some concerns within their own community about the refugees and a possible backlash from the German far-right.

“They should feel welcome. We don’t know how it will continue but we want to give them a good start,” said Hannah Dannel of the umbrella group the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Members of the synagogue, alongside other Jews from Berlin, began volunteering last year shortly after the refugees began arriving in Germany in large numbers.

“The first time we came here everybody asked where we were from. We said we’re Jews from synagogue. People were completely shocked,” said volunteer Yacob Yanai, an Israeli who moved to Berlin to study. Today, he said, “they look forward to it. The kids really bonded with the volunteers.”

“I like the events, especially the face-painting, and I like that we’re getting to know the volunteers,” said 7-year-old Alreza, from Afghanistan, before getting his face painted as Spiderman.

Yacob Yanai, an Israeli living in Berlin, volunteers with refugee children at the Spandau refugee shelter. November 13, 2016. (Courtesy)
Yacob Yanai, an Israeli living in Berlin, volunteers with refugee children at the Spandau refugee shelter. November 13, 2016. (Courtesy)

 

The Spandau shelter is in a nondescript, two-story building across from an open field about an hour’s bus ride northwest of the city’s center. A guard checks IDs at the front door, and inside is a cavernous common area where a few residents sit among rows of picnic tables strewn with empty plastic coffee mugs. A map on the wall points to neighborhood resources including churches, mosques, a swimming center and a library.

The shelter was set up last October as a temporary home for emergency cases, but some refugees have been there since. Most of the residents are Iraqi, Iranian, Afghani and Syrian, although Syrians generally receive better refugee status and many have moved from the Spandau shelter to better accommodations, said Frank Rehnen, a German man who works at the center.

The remaining residents are left with little to do.

“Being stuck in this place all the time for a child is just horrible,” Yanai said.

The volunteers aim to have fun with the kids and introduce them to Jewish people and Israel, said Yael Dinur, an Israeli who moved to Berlin to work with the World Zionist Organization.

Arts and crafts during Mitzvah Day at the Spandau refugee shelter. The card reads "one good deed leads to the next." November 13, 2016. (Courtesy)
Arts and crafts during Mitzvah Day at the Spandau refugee shelter. The card reads “one good deed leads to the next.” November 13, 2016. (Courtesy)

“The kids haven’t heard about anti-Semitism yet,” Dinur said. “And this is maybe their first time hearing about Israel.”

The volunteers want to change the perspective of the adults at the shelter also.

“A lot of these refugees have grown up in places they’ve been taught to hate and fear Jews. All I can do is show them one person by one person that Jews are good people,” said Michael Grant, a member of the synagogue originally from the UK.

Grant spent his day at the shelter teaching German to two refugees from Iran. He came to the shelter wearing his kippah and a Mitzvah Day T-shirt and made his rounds in the common area trying to recruit students to the synagogue’s “Cafe Deutsch,” where volunteers provide language lessons to the recent arrivals. It was Grant’s fourth time volunteering at the shelter and he has had no bad experiences, he said. When he arrived for Mitzvah Day wearing the synagogue’s T-shirt and his kippah, one of the residents went out of his way to thank him for the synagogue’s work, he said.

Most refugees will not encounter Jews in Germany because the community is so small, Grant said as he slowly went over a worksheet on the names of animals with an Iranian migrant named Saeid who arrived at the shelter three weeks earlier. Most of the residents of the shelter do not know German yet so there is a significant language barrier. Saeid, wearing track pants, a denim shirt and black sneakers, constantly looked to Google translate on his phone to check his spelling and understanding.

Some members of the Jewish community are less enthusiastic about working with the refugees than others, however.

“They want to send clothes or something but don’t want to go with their kids,” Dannel said.

There have been several terror attacks perpetrated by asylum-seekers in Germany, and there are concerns about anti-Semitism among refugees in Germany’s Jewish community.

Another concern for the volunteers is Germany’s far-right. Neo-Nazis circulated a list of Berlin’s Jewish sites on the anniversary of Kristallnacht last week, and German-Jewish leaders have criticized the rise of the far-right political party Alternative for Germany.

The organizers still printed out Mitzvah Day T-shirts for volunteers to wear during the day, along with fliers and stickers.

“Nazis don’t know what a mitzvah is,” Dannel said.

Hannah Dannel, left, and Yael Dinur, right, volunteer at the Spandau refugee shelter. November 13, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Hannah Dannel, left, and Yael Dinur, right, volunteer at the Spandau refugee shelter. November 13, 2016. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The Mitzvah Day activities are a positive way for the Jewish community to publicly assert themselves in Germany, Dinur said. Many Germans assume that Jewish people in the country hide their identity, she said.

“When you walk down a street in Berlin you don’t see people with kippot. People are scared there is anti-Semitism,” Dinur said. “There is a strong meaning for us, being Jews, to working with refugees. It’s also important for us to not hide the fact that we’re Jewish,” she said.

The synagogue members, along with several volunteers from Berlin’s branch of the Israeli youth movement Hashomer Hatzair and other Jewish Berliners, spent several hours with the kids, after which their parents arrived to collect them from the room. The parents are happy to have people taking care of their kids, Dannel said, because it is so boring for the kids at the shelter.

The Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, a non-denominational, traditional synagogue in the city’s Mitte neighborhood, also dedicated its Mitzvah Day in 2015 to work with refugees, and has worked with them since. Volunteers from the synagogue go to the shelter about once a month.

The effort paid off quickly, Dannel said.

When they first arrived, they said, “This is Germany, these are the rules, we’re trying to live together,” Yanai said. “Some of them really changed their perspective.”

After last year’s Mitzvah Day a Syrian they met came to the synagogue for hummus. He couldn’t believe he was sitting in a synagogue eating with Jews three months after leaving Syria, Dannel said.

Mitzvah Day is an annual, international volunteering event. The Jewish-led initiative, established in the United Kingdom in 2005, aims to support local charities and build interfaith relationships. Last year, 40,000 people participated in 21 countries.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany organized the first Mitzvah Day Deutschland in 2013. This year, 105 projects took place around the country, Dannel said, including 10 to 15 programs for refugees.

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