|Berlin Beit Hamidrash|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
“A gift for future generations” is how Mr. Paul Spiegel, President of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, the umbrella organization of Jewish organizations in Germany, described the Berlin “Lauder Jüdisches Lehrhaus”, at the inauguration ceremony on 10 October 1999. The Hebrew name for this institution is “Berlin Beit Hamidrash”, the Berlin Study House. But who attends and what is studied there?
This is not just a Jewish study center, but also a center for Jewish life, located in the premises of the old Jewish religious school of the Berlin Jewish community, closed down in 1941by the Germans, who deported all the students and teaching staff to the death camps. The building is part of the complex that includes the famous Rykestrasse synagogue, one of the two Berlin synagogues to have survived Kristallnacht intact. The institution contains a full-time yeshivah, which in turn includes a teacher training center, an adult education program, offices, classrooms, a student dormitory (16-22 beds), a strictly kosher dining room, and a small apartment for visiting lecturers from abroad.
The purpose of this new school is to respond to one of the major, practical problems facing the German Jewish community, which in absolute terms is enjoying the biggest growth in Europe: the lack of teachers and rabbis. This situation is particularly serious in the small towns, where there are no rabbis, no teachers, nor any form of Jewish education. This is the first yeshiva in Germany since the war, and young adults from all over the country come here to study, as much from the big centers as from small towns such as Aachen, Osnabrück, Schwerin, etc. In addition to Judaism itself, these students learn how to lead the religious life of a community. The purpose of this training is to allow these young spiritual mentors to play a positive role in the development of Jewish life throughout Germany. This is particularly important in small places that are remote from the Jewish infrastructure of the larger towns. In Rostock, for example, City Hall has given a building to the Jewish community of 400 members to set up a synagogue and community center, however, no Jew in this town knows how to read a word of Hebrew. What is the future of such a community? What can be offered to the Jews of this town so that they can live their Judaism and strengthen their Jewish identity? Absolutely nothing. It is for exactly this type of situation that the Berlin Beit Hamidrash is training young community leaders.
The students are divided up into small groups, which lets them get almost personal tuition. In general, the courses, given by resident or visiting teachers, cover Talmud, Bible, Jewish Law (halachah), Hebrew and Jewish philosophy. With time, the students are able to study on their own the texts, biblical commentaries and Talmud. By the end of the course, they have learned enough to be able to pass on the basic principles of Judaism and its content to their co-religionists. Working to a clear plan, the Berlin Beit Hamidrash offers three different study levels. Firstly, the full-time yeshivah receives for one year young people with a high school graduation diploma or equivalent. In addition to basic training that includes the study of Hebrew, they learn to conduct religious services, to develop programs for youth and for children, and to organize and lead adult study groups. In order to acquire practical experience, they take part in community projects in Berlin itself. At the end of the year, the students are encouraged to register at one of the Berlin universities, and if they are accepted, the Beit Hamidrash offers them the possibility of staying on as boarders at the institution. This allows them, in parallel to their university studies, to perfect their Jewish knowledge. The combination of university and Jewish studies demands an extremely high work level, and it had been noted that few students are capable of handling this effort.
The second program, called “Itim l’Torah”, which could be translated as “time for the Torah”, is aimed at external students who have decided to commit a part of their time to studying Judaism. The school organizes for them once a month an intensive study weekend, starting Friday afternoon and finishing Sunday evening. They get homework to do, and stay in regular contact with the Beit Hemidrash teaching staff between seminars.
The third and final program is for school students who, after school and after they have completed their homework, are interested to take daily, specially prepared courses in Judaism. Some residential places are also reserved for students of the Jewish school in Berlin who come from small communities, who attend high school and also take a program in Judaism at the Beit Hamidrash. The Director visits all the small Jewish communities in Germany and selects young people to become spiritual guides for their communities. With increasing frequency, the Beit Hamidrash is organizing Shabbatot in the small communities of the former East Germany.
In a one-off conversation with Rabbi JOSHUA SPINNER, who runs the Beit Hamidrash with determination and skill, he told us in particular, “We are often asked why we have set up in Germany and why we do not send our students to study in Israel. The answer is very simple: there are about one hundred thousand Jews in Germany today, and a large number from the CIS are likely to come and settle here. How are those of us who have the privilege of having the knowledge and the means going to meet our responsibility of providing them with a Jewish education? Before we opened our doors, there was no center like it in Germany or anywhere in Eastern Europe. Today, in our fourth academic year, we have two students from Budapest, one from Minsk, one from Kishinev, and I believe this trend to internationalism is only going to grow.
It is interesting to see how this institution operates. It does not in fact content itself with training spiritual guides, but supplies these young Jews with sufficient knowledge that, tomorrow, they will return to their communities capable of building a Jewish life, even if the place is too small to maintain a full-time Rabbi. Many of today’s students select professions that are in no way linked to passing on Judaism, but will be capable of leading a service, giving lessons, motivating youth etc. You can always find and bring in a rabbi or a spiritual guide, but it is quite impossible to “import” Jews with an adequate Jewish knowledge to organize Jewish life in places where rabbis or teachers are lacking. It is this sort of leader that the Berlin Beit Hamidrash is training: men who want to live their lives according to the tenets of Judaism, who have enough knowledge to pass on the these principles, while providing a personal example by being prepared to give of their time and energy, so that the members of small communities will never be deprived of minimal Jewish life and education. “A gift for future generations”, said Paul Spiegel – that’s for sure! In fact it is already something for this generation. More than just providing a chance of survival for small communities by supplying them with capable people, the Beit Hamidrash initiative is also part of the struggle against missionaries, who, well aware of the situation of these communities, approaches them in an attempt to convert them.