Interview'We all decided that we were going to keep praying'

Synagogue shooting survivor says German Jewry can’t only be about anti-Semitism

US Rabbi Rebecca Blady and husband Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz arrived in Berlin in May to do Jewish outreach. After surviving near-massacre on Yom Kippur, their resolve isn’t weakened

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

Illustrative: Rabbi Rebecca Blady, center, performs the havdallah ceremony in 2017. (Courtesy Base BERLIN)
Illustrative: Rabbi Rebecca Blady, center, performs the havdallah ceremony in 2017. (Courtesy Base BERLIN)

BERLIN — Forty-eight hours after surviving a shooting attack at an east German synagogue, American-born Rabbi Rebecca Blady’s resolve has not weakened when it comes to continuing her Jewish outreach work in Germany.

The shooting, a Yom Kippur “massacre” that was only averted because the synagogue’s wooden door held firm against the 27-year-old neo-Nazi gunman, saw two people killed nearby.

Footage of the attack livestreamed by the suspect, German national Stephan Balliet, showed him repeatedly trying to gain access, as dozens of worshippers huddled inside.

Among those whose lives were spared were Blady, her husband, Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, and the roughly 20 people they had brought with them from Berlin — about 100 miles (170 kilometers) away — to worship with the small community of Halle.

With the synagogue under lockdown, the captive congregants made the decision to continue the prayer services. Together with the Jews of Halle, the mostly young group of visitors shared a service they will never forget.

The congregation’s decision to unite and pray in the face of danger seems suited to the mission of Blady and Borovitz, who moved to Berlin in late spring. They arrived with their toddler and a vision to help grow the community, and Blady remains committed to helping that community thrive.

Blady is the executive director of Hillel Germany, and together with Borovitz runs Base BERLIN, a center for events, communal meals, music, yoga and Torah classes, out of their apartment.

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, left, studies Torah with a Base participant, 2017. (Courtesy Base BERLIN)

“It is so important, especially now, that Germany for the global Jewish community is not just a site of anti-Semitism,” Blady told The Times of Israel in an interview Friday, sandwiched between taking the baby to daycare and baking challah for Shabbat.

With little time to process things, Blady and Borovitz have spent a whirlwind two days since the attack — returning to Berlin, working with others present at the attack, issuing statements and speaking to the press.

“Yesterday I was running on adrenaline, but today I’m just exhausted,” Blady said, adding that the gravity of the shooting was starting to sink in.

The following interview has been lightly edited.

You just got here in May, and now this…

Living in Berlin, we actually don’t feel unsafe, usually. Walking around, my husband and I, to some extent, we look Jewish. We’ve never had reason to feel afraid in Berlin. We’re not naïve — we know there are incidents, we know that friends of ours have been shoved and spat on while wearing Star of David necklaces or showing the slightest signs of being Jewish, and we feel for these friends, of course.

But at the same time, we know how infrequent it is, and we also know that Berlin is not so different from, unfortunately, the rest of the world at this moment, where being Jewish suddenly makes you a target again.

Shortly before we moved here, there was the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, there was the shooting in Poway. Synagogues, Jewish spaces, under attack from lone wolf gunmen – I mean, we were already accustomed to it before even moving to Germany, because that’s just the reality of the world right now.

Did we ever think we would experience it? I don’t think anybody actually thinks that they will experience it. Intellectually, did we think that it was impossible? I mean, it’s possible. That’s the bottom line — it’s possible.

An armed man believed to be gunman Stephan Balliet, on a street in Halle, Germany, during a shooting outside a synagogue in that city which killed two, October 9, 2019. (Screenshot/Andreas Splett/ATV-Studio Halle/AFP)

You’ve said that you prefer individuals and Jewish organizations to focus on Jewish life here, rather than on incidents of anti-Semitism. Has that changed since Wednesday?

Generally, I believe that more people around the world, especially in the global Jewish community, really owe it to themselves to come here and see the thriving Jewish life here, and see that there are active members of the Jewish community who work really hard, often on a volunteer basis, to make really wonderful and exciting Jewish community spaces and programs and the like. And I still believe that to be true, absolutely.

I think that it’s so important that people don’t see Berlin just as a place where they have to go and send solidarity and feel all kinds of emotions because the Holocaust happened here. Of course it’s complicated with the history of the Holocaust – it adds another layer to this whole story. And also because of that, the fact that there’s a thriving Jewish community here, makes it one of the most important communities that I think people around the world have to learn from — the fact that there’s a community being built here intentionally, reviving itself, functioning in a really special and unique way…

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, right, gestures as he stands in front of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, Thursday, October 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

People cannot just think about this place and these people as fighters and heroes — which of course, many of them are — but if the global Jewish community doesn’t wake up and see that there are Jews here living a full life, with Jewish schools, with synagogues, with a whole culture, and the only time that we hear from the global Jewish community is at a moment like this? There’s something very wrong with that, in my opinion.

The narrative around Jewish Germany cannot just be about anti-Semitism, because honestly, if that’s the case, I still believe that we’re shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit. We need to see the whole Jewish world as unified.

Halle community leader Max Privorotzky was quoted as saying that he’s not sure Germany is a home for the Jews any longer.

Yeah, that might be the most painful part for me, actually. Because he is absolutely in the right for having this view.

The leader of the Jewish community Max Privorozki gives a statement in front of the synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany, on October 10, 2019, one day after the anti-Semitic attack in which two people were shot dead. (Ronny Hartmann/AFP)

We, and our group, we’re not from Halle. Most of us got to come back to Berlin where there’s an active Jewish life, where there are cops in front of every synagogue, where there are people to talk to about different feelings about this, and where there are spaces to go to.

And this is the Halle community’s only space – they don’t get to leave there, they don’t have other choices. Their only Jewish space was attacked. And for us, something that we’re really trying to think about is how to maintain a relationship with this community.

Mourners light candles on October 10, 2019, at the synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany, one day after a deadly anti-Semitic shooting. (Ronny Hartmann/AFP)

We just went through this thing together, and then we got to leave, and that’s a luxury in this kind of situation.

When I think about how petrifying and traumatizing this was for me, I can imagine that experience was just as much so for them, but there’s an added layer for them that this is their only Jewish space, and I don’t have that experience, and I am concerned about that…

There is a lot of grief here. There is a lot of grief in what Max is saying.

You had a group of roughly 20 visitors along with you in Halle for Yom Kippur, and you and your husband still managed to maintain your composure and sense of group leadership throughout this crisis. What kept you going?

There was a significant chunk of time when we really didn’t know what was going on. During the first hour it really wasn’t clear to many of us whether it was actually a gunman, or if it was a man with an air gun and some fireworks. We really didn’t know.

That time of uncertainty, while certainly scary, actually allowed me to think through the range of possibilities and have a lot of hope that we were going to be fine, and this was kind of a freak thing, and I kind of just let that possibility take over my mind.

A Jewish man stands between police officers at a Jewish cemetery and synagogue in Halle, Germany, October 9, 2019. (Jens Meyer/AP)

Through that, we were able to come to decisions together with the community. We decided that we were going to keep praying, for example.

The shots happened in the middle of Torah reading, and after this period of time where we didn’t know what was going on – we were hiding upstairs for a little while, then we came back down, and after that we decided that we would continue with the second half of prayers, and that the cantor would lead us in them, and we would have Yom Kippur.

And this actually seemed like the only thing to do, in many respects. The synagogue was on lockdown, no one was allowed in or out, and, you know, it’s after all the day when we’re meant to confront our own mortality. In that space of not knowing, prayer was very powerful.

Was anyone asking why there was no police presence at a synagogue in eastern Germany on Yom Kippur prior to the attack?

Yes, I think people were wondering, because of course in Berlin you see police in front of every synagogue, especially on High Holidays such as Yom Kippur.

Yeah, I think people were indeed wondering. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

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