BERLIN — In an alcove of the Dueppel Youth Center in Berlin, volunteer face painters turned little girls into ghouls or princesses, while down the hall boys were busy making pizza from scratch. At a nearby table a group of children rolled out dough to cut into Christmas cookies.
None of these kids celebrate Christmas at home. All are Jews and Muslims living in Berlin who on Sunday took part in Mitzvah Day 2018 — a program held under the auspices of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
On Monday, the Christmas cookies would be wrapped in pretty bags and delivered to a church soup kitchen to be served by the nondenominational Berliner Tafel (Berlin Table) organization. But for now, about 40 kids were busy running after bright green helium balloons, playing hockey or billiards, or cooking and baking with parental supervision.
Lively chatter and shouts filled the halls of the youth center on the outskirts of the city — a colorful oasis on a chilly, grey autumn day.
Sultan, age 10, was in his element, helping younger kids make pizza as his father, Abdul Munaf — a professional cook — looked on. Sultan said he wants to be a soccer player one day.
“I don’t care what religion people are,” said Munaf, who came to Germany from Pakistan in 1993. He and his wife teach their children to “talk to people and decide if they like them — but not based on appearance. My kids are open to everybody.”
“I think Mitzvah Day is great,” said 9-year-old Dan, between activities. “Of course more kids should come.”
“Cooking is fun,” said Amna, age 6, her face painted to resemble a butterfly.
Jakob, age 9, was busy mixing powdered sugar with purple food coloring and water to decorate the cookies. He said he liked Mitzvah Day because “you have to do something good for people.” He’d already met children in his school from Yemen and Syria, who “were afraid that houses would fall on them. I told them we are safe here.”
The Mitzvah Day project’s genesis was in Los Angeles 19 years ago. It went international in 2005, and the Central Council of Jews in Germany picked it up in 2012.
There are currently about 100,000 people officially listed as members of Jewish communities across Germany, and an estimated 100,000 more who are not members, including at least 20,000 Israelis. The vast majority of Jews in Germany — probably 90 percent — have arrived since 1990 from the former Soviet Union.
In all, there are 82 Jewish communities strewn around the country. Many of them participated in Mitzvah Day activities, with children and adults visiting senior homes and schools, helping clean up old cemeteries, and participating in interfaith activities such as the baking event at the Dueppel center.
Some of the Muslim children at the Berlin event came from the local neighborhood, and others live in housing for recent refugees. About 1 million migrants have arrived here from war-torn areas since mid-2015.
Concerned that some migrants might be bringing anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic attitudes from their home countries, the Central Council of Jews in Germany has repeatedly stressed the urgent need to educate the newcomers. The umbrella group’s president, Josef Schuster, has blasted the rise of anti-migrant, right-wing political groups in Germany.
Nowadays, it’s important to “send out a signal that ours is a united society, and will stay that way,” said Daniel Botmann, the council’s managing director, who took part in Sunday’s activities.
“The idea of doing a good deed is not about giving money, but about giving time,” Botmann added.
At a time when societal groups are increasingly pitted against one another, a positive message is sorely needed, suggested Dervis Hizarci, president of the Kreuzberg Initiative Against Antisemitism (KIGA) — an award-winning Berlin organization that works with local youth. Several members took part in Mitzvah Day.
“Our society is getting rougher,” noted Hizarci, a Muslim of Turkish background, who brought his own two children along and rallied several friends and their kids to join him.
Hizarci, a Muslim of Turkish background, brought his own two children along, and rallied several other friends and their kids to join him. Some families did not want to join in, but “I never take a simple no for an answer,” he said.
“Anti-Semitism is a societal problem and we have to show all levels of society that Jews, Muslims, refugees — Berliners — can all be together, baking and eating together,” added Hizarci, whose 3-year-old son bore a striking resemblance to Spider Man.
Sabine Werth, founder of the 25-year-old Berliner Tafel charity, said she was looking forward to telling people at the soup kitchen that Jewish and Muslim children had baked their Christmas cookies.
“We are living in difficult times, and many say that our political problems are caused by religion,” Werth said. “I think that argument is too simple. It’s a question of being with each other, and for each other.”
Decorating cookies alongside new friends, Jakob said he knew it was hard for children of refugees to feel at home in Germany right away.
“I tell them that they won’t always be alone, and that’s important, too,” he said.