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Jewish Life Booms in Cologne

As immigrants revive the German city’s historic community, new ideas emerge about Jewish engagement

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Sarah Burkhard’s children Tal, left, and Yonah, look at old Torah scrolls at the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne. (All photos Daniella Cheslow)

While both Fischer and Chabad are trying to create new Jewish institutions in Cologne, another local activist is trying to resurrect the ghosts of the city’s prewar community. Unlike most of the Jews of Cologne, filmmaker Sarah Burkhard, 38, was born in Germany. Her grandmother hid in a priest’s attic during World War II. Her father, born in 1931, survived Theresienstadt. Burkhard was born in Heidelberg and moved to Cologne to pursue film.

Today she is a mother of four. When two of her children were in Jewish kindergarten a few years ago, she noticed some of their friends’ Russian parents had a faint grasp of Jewish tradition. “They told us about Christmas trees, and about cooking lasagna with milk and pork,” she said.

Sarah Burkhard

Sarah Burkhard reads a book called Rabbi, Is This Kosher?

In an effort to educate the city’s foreign-born Jews, Burkhard started a website and a Facebook page with basic information about keeping kosher. Then she wanted to offer recipe ideas. Now she and her husband are using the stovetop to build a bridge between Cologne’s Jewish immigrants and the city’s venerable Jewish heritage. She is collecting testimony and recipes from Jewish Holocaust survivors. All these go up on her site, Kosher Culture Club, a whimsical if disorganized space that also hosts video interviews with modern German challah bakers.

“The Jewish community where I grew up was very small, and there were still some Holocaust survivors in Heidelberg,” she said. “I knew those people, and they still live in me. I don’t want to forget it.”

But cooking in Cologne with old recipes raises some new challenges—like finding kosher meat. Today only one local butcher carries it; any other kosher meat comes by special order from Antwerp. And the changes in the Jewish community aren’t always easy for Burkhard to handle. It’s difficult, for instance, to keep up with the announcements from the Roonstrasse synagogue when they are printed in Cyrillic. She wishes the community were bigger. “There’s only two synagogues [in Cologne],” she said. “In America there are so many, you can always choose. And I wish the school would be bigger. And there is no high school for older kids.”

For now, Burkhard is doing what she can, hoping that the city’s revived Jewish community can hold on to some of its long historical legacy. She still gets a thrill when she sees the Chabad rabbi downtown. “I think: Cool, Jewish people on the streets,” she said.

Fischer, for her part, wants to keep expanding the Jewish options in Cologne. She spoke about a Yiddish course starting this month in the city. Beyond connecting new Jewish arrivals with the past, it can also spark the imaginations of the German residents. “We have to find things that are interesting for both Jews and Germans. That’s the point of meeting, where we start,” said Fischer. “We were already here. We are here again.”


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herbcaen says:

There are more Jews in Birmingham, Alabama then there are in Cologne, and thats the way it should be. I view the re-emergence of Jewish communities in places they are not wanted as a freak occurrence, kind of like 3 headed cattle, 3 legged frogs, and unicorns. Definitely not to be celebrated

I guess the Russian Jews moved from one end of the beast to the other end. Not that people would have any idea of what I’m talking about. Probably they think I’m crazy because not only are they ignorant of what I am referring, that would rather remain ignorant than admit to not knowing something. That is if they are like all too many Jews I’ve known and met. In other words not just ignorant, but willfully ignorant and determined to remain so. In that case stay in Germany ’til they do God knows what to you ignoramuses next. Apparently you folks wouldn’t have it any other way.

As a student of Jewish history it is beyond clear to me that whatever you people do ends in disaster AND you are proud of this. I pray they or you finish your complete self-destructive existence.
Spare me your name-calling and labels I don’t care what you 4-eyed blind leading the blind people think of me. In fact I have now just BEGUN to tell you what I think of you. Particularly the Orthodox and the ultra-ugly, though Chabad seems like they might have some potential.

I think at this point, Jews are more welcome in Germany than they are in the bible belt of the deep south. In one of those places, Nazis rot in jail, while they are free to walk the streets in full regalia and burn crosses in the other. I’ll give you a hint, you won’t find many sieg heils going on in Munich.

herbcaen says:

I have been to Birmingham many times and have always been welcomed. On the other hand, you need to show your passport to enter any synagogue in Germany and many cannot get a minyan. Most shuls in Germany are closed on Mondays because that is the day that museums are closed. Finally, the Jewish museum of Berlin stocks antizionist texts in its gift shop and hosts Judith Butler in her crusade to boycott Israel. So as any real German would tell you, what part of Juden rous do you not understand?

Now drive on out to the middle of the state where the towns start getting into populations around 100 and where the stars and bars replace the stars and stripes. Tell them you’re a Jew and see what happens. Germany has the 3rd largest Jewish population in Europe, and the only one with a vibrantly growing population, so your description of synagogues as empty shells doesn’t really sound too accurate. Lastly, Jewish anti-zionism, although rare, is a very real thing. Germany Jews have always been some of the most assimilated in the world, and Zionism is the antithesis of that ideal. Israel has a long history of giving the middle finger to people who people who call them out on their crap, so boycotts seem like a logical next step.

Also, out is German is raus, not rous. Glad to see you slipped into the laziest stereotype out there.

herbcaen says:

I have driven to the center of the state and identified as a Jew. Nothing happened. Now why dont you go to Jena, or other towns in Thuringia and Saxony, where behind closed doors, the swastika still flies? Identify yourself as a Jew. German Jews were more assimilated than other Jews, and were rewarded with Dachau, Auschwitz, etc. Israel should give people the middle finger who deny their rights to defend themselves, including yourself. Join the next gaza flotilla

If you’ll pay for my plane ticket, I’d love to go on a vacation to Germany.

Also, there is a big difference between defending yourself and being a dick. Destroying a military base is defending yourself, creating a border wall that grabs large amounts of the West Bank is being a dick. Bombing rocket teams is defending yourself, forcing people to drive all the way around a city because you decided to set up a Jews-only settlement smack dab in the middle is being a dick. Intercepting Iranian ships full of weapons is defending yourself, setting up roadblocks between peaceful Palestinian villages is being a dick. Learn the difference.

Igor Fischer says:

So by that logic the re-emergence of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel is not something to be celebrated?

BTW: “And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with G-d and with men, and hast prevailed.’ (Bereshit 32:29)”

herbcaen says:

Obviously, Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael should be supported and celebrated. The purpose of glorifying Jewish life in a place where we are obviously not wanted (Germany), is to demote Israel as a place for Jews. People who glorify Jewish settlement in Germany long for the brief times when Jews had world sympathy, ie 1945. I prefer Jewish strength over world sympathy. Eretz Yisrael is superior to Birmingham, but Birmingham is superior to Cologne, as the vast majority of real Germans dont want Jews in their midst and their wishes should be respected

Igor Fischer says:

I have no respect for antisemites and their wishes.

herbcaen says:

I dont either but I dont particularly want to live in a sea of antisemites

Chajm Guski says:

Even if I really don’t like herbcaens point
of view, I’ll have to add two things: The jews of Germany are not a “vibrantly growing population”. The jewish population declines rapidly. See a graphic here
(even if the rest of the page is in German).

“so your description of synagogues as empty
shells doesn’t really sound too accurate.” Does not sound accurate, but it is a proper description of the current situation.

Looking at your data, it only takes into account Jews who are registered members of Jewish community. New immigrants or people who may be somewhat ambivalent about going to synagogue may not be registered and give a larger number of Jews in Germany than the ZWST survey says there are. The true number of Jews in Germany is closer to 200,000, but only 105,000 are registered. However, the growth of German Jewry is supported mainly by immigrants and not by increasing birthrates. As things get better for Russian Jews, the largest source of this influx, both socially and economically, then we probably will see a decline in the Jewish population of Germany.


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Jewish Life Booms in Cologne

As immigrants revive the German city’s historic community, new ideas emerge about Jewish engagement

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