DRESDEN, Germany — Dresden Halle is no stranger to the flashing lights, costumes, and joyous atmosphere of live entertainment. But it’s unlikely the entertainment center has ever seen 2,000 Jews singing such lyrics as “trust in Hashem, we’ll be okay — no matter what comes, we’re here to stay.”
Until Jewrovision, that is.
Based off the Eurovision Song Contest, at Jewrovision’s humble beginning in 2002 a mere 120 kids and 6 Jewish youth clubs competed in the Max Willner home in Bad Sobernheim, a town close to Frankfurt. This February 10 saw more than 60 youth clubs and over 1,200 kids vying for the prominent title.
Just like the Eurovision song contest, teams submit a video about their community and the city they represent, as well as a performance.
Unlike Eurovision though, the Central Council of Jews in Germany not only runs the performance, but also a kosher camp alongside it. And it’s affordable — participants pay 70 euros for the entire weekend.
This year’s theme was the “circle of life,” which conjured imagery about what it means to be Jewish in Germany and the importance of Jewish continuity in the community. The way the children interpreted the themes varied from Jewish rituals and holidays, to community organizations, to heavier themes of the Holocaust and remembrance.
Choosing Dresden as host city was not a decision made lightly since 2017 proved to be a turbulent year for European politics. Germany was not immune from the rise of the far-right as Alternative Fur Deutschland (AfD) was the first far-right nationalist party to enter the Bundestag since the Nazis in World War II.
Being the third most popular party to have entered parliament with a swing of 7.9 percent since the 2013 elections, their victory was not a fluke.
Dresden is also the birthplace of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) a group that has created further tension and division among Germans.
Board member of the Jewish Student Union of Germany (JSUD) Arthur Poliakow believes that “AfD is a party that tolerates racism in its own ranks, which poses a challenge to present and future Jewish life in Germany.”
Expressing his concern for the party’s entry into parliament, he adds that its anti-immigration platform and racist remarks “should not only serve as a reminder to those who actively support human rights but civil society as a whole to fight against xenophobia wherever it may be present.”
In what may have come as a shock to some, in the federal state of Saxony where Dresden is located, close to 30% of the population voted for AfD. According to statistics, more than 1 million people who voted for Merkel in 2013 voted for AfD five years later. In addition, AfD was able to attract 1.4 million nonvoters to get to the polls.
The Jewrovision competition has never been political, nor was it intended to be. However, with the challenges faced not only by the Jewish community but also other minorities upon the election of the AfD, this event has become both a symbol of empowerment for German Jews, as well as an anti-Facist gesture.
Informal education as key to German Jewry’s unity
In contrast to its mainstream secular counterpart, instead of countries competing against each other, individual youth clubs from the cities and regions go head to head. At first, the winning youth club would host the next competition. However, since the Central Council of Jews in Germany took over in 2013, it has been held in a different city each year regardless of the winner.
Laura Cazes, the current Coordinator of the German-Israeli volunteer service for the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany, explains why German cities and regions compete rather than youth movements, and elaborates on how the youth clubs work.
“In Germany, Jewish informal education predominantly happens within Jewish communities, and the youth clubs fulfill the tasks youth movements in other countries would cover,” says Cazes.
“As clubs do not unify under an ideology, cities would unify under a name and anthem while still connecting them to Jewish topics and values. Children will mix with each other at summer and winter camps, but Jewrovision has become this tool where children will meet representing their home city,” she adds.
This year, Amichai Frankfurt won the competition. Cazes, who was formally a part of the club, expresses her joy at the victory.
“The little kid inside me is so happy that the team has won. But also, reflecting as an adult and now staff at Jewrovision, I can see how important this informal education is to the community,” she says.
Cazes firmly believes that growing up with the youth club and other Jewish institutions led to her work for the Central Welfare Board and passion for German Jewish life.
“Although my work now is not very connected to the educational aspects of Jewrovision, I still feel very connected to the mission,” she says.
Growing up Jewish in Germany
Dalia Grinfield, president of the Jewish Student Union of Germany, has been a part of Jewrovision since 2008.
This year was her 10th taking part in the song contest, but instead of competing with her native group, “Olam Berlin,” she proudly ran the over-18 programming also advocated for other European Union of Jewish Student leaders to attend the event.
Having grown up in German Jewish institutions and raised in the Jewish community, she explains that “once you’re a part of it, you can’t get out.” She says being a part of Jewrovision is like having another family.
She said it is important to her how “Germans openly accept what had happened in the past.” The “amount of education” the average German receives allows Jews to celebrate their identity openly.
However, being Jewish in Germany is not always easy. With the rise of anti-Semitism in recent years, the importance of bringing Jewish youth together has become a substantial part of building their identity in the face of adversity.
Carmen Targownik, 16, is a team leader for Neshama Munchen. She attended both Jewish and public schooling and recalls particular memories where she faced anti-Semitism in the classroom — once by a student, and another by a teacher.
“It was a horrible feeling, I felt really different from the others and although my peers wanted to help me, I felt like they didn’t understand my situation,” she says.
With the help of her father, and inspired by his efforts to teach non-Jewish students about Judaism in her class, she felt empowered. After discovering the Likrat program at Jewrovision last year, she believed she could make a positive impact.
“We are given training and sent in pairs of two to non-Jewish schools to talk to pupils. We just want to show them that we are normal, like everyone else,” Targownik says.
Benny Fischer is a former Jewrovision participant and leader who is now working for the European Jewish Congress. Fischer says he has big hopes the future of German Jewry.
“The sheer existence of German Jewry seemed like a contradiction for years,” Fischer says.
“This, however, is changing with a new, third generation that seeks discourse, celebrates diversity and builds up state-of-the-art institutional frameworks — even in a European context. It is extremely exciting to watch this community transform, as this younger generation takes up the baton,” he says.
As German Jewry continues to flourish, becoming one of the most active Jewish communities in Europe, the future for these Jewrovision participants is bright — and filled with a clear sense of belonging.