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Jewish Life Booms in Cologne

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

Daniella Cheslow
January 14, 2013
Sarah Burkhard's children Tal, left, and Yonah, look at old Torah scrolls at the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne.(All photos Daniella Cheslow)
Sarah Burkhard's children Tal, left, and Yonah, look at old Torah scrolls at the Roonstrasse synagogue in Cologne.(All photos Daniella Cheslow)

On a bitterly cold evening last month, about 100 people gathered on a cobblestone plaza outside City Hall in Cologne for a public Hanukkah celebration. Rising above the crowd in a pneumatic cherry picker, Menachem Schtroks—the city’s British-born Chabad rabbi—told the group that the recent legal battles over circumcision in Germany could be compared to the struggle to maintain Judaism in the time of the Maccabees. Then he lit the branches of a towering menorah. An Israeli singer belted out old Hebrew standards, and about 30 boys and girls danced the hora in separate circles, under the watchful eye of a handful of Israeli security officers. Warm apple cider helped wash down the jelly doughnuts Chabad volunteers were handing out—along with Jewish Cologne calendars and boxed Hanukkah menorah sets. Most of the attendees, many of them old men in furry winter hats, chatted in Russian.

That same night, a quieter Hanukkah event was held at Café Centrale, a large coffee shop in Cologne’s prime nightlife district. The mostly young, secular, and German crowd included kids who spun dreidels and ate chocolate gelt, while the adults ordered pasta and wine. A piano at the front door was a shelf for books like The Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher and Yetta the Yiddish Hen. The evening was subdued if chaotic, with a hasty candle-lighting and a short round of songs like “Maoz Tzur.” There was no security, no free calendar, and no Hebrew music blasting from speakers. Economist Hana Fischer, the host of the event, used the night to promote her pet project, a Jewish cultural center she hopes to open in 2013.

The Jews of Cologne call themselves the oldest Jewish community north of the Alps, with records dating back to 321 CE. But the Jewish community here is now better known as the place at the heart of a national—and international—debate over Jewish religious freedom last year, when a court here ruled circumcision illegal. This negative attention obscured what was, for many in Cologne itself, a revival of sorts, which has included the refurbishing of a host of Jewish communal institutions. Two years ago, the city’s mikveh, or ritual bath, was renovated. In September 2012, four new rabbis were ordained in an emotional ceremony in Cologne’s main city synagogue. The city is investing 50 million euros in building a Jewish museum.

It’s a far cry from what anyone would have predicted for this city. Despite their pedigree, the Jews of Cologne suffered the same fate during the Holocaust as the rest of German Jews; sidewalks today are littered with small brass squares memorializing where the city’s 15,000 Jews once lived. But Cologne is experiencing a genuine Jewish renewal, driven by thousands of immigrants. Most of the 5,000 Jewish residents—this city of roughly a million people has the country’s fifth-largest Jewish community—are transplants from the former Soviet Union. The challenge now facing the city’s Jewish community is to knit itself together to forge a new type of German Judaism that connects Cologne’s future to its past.

“Jews have lived in Germany for 1,700 years,” said Schtroks, the first Chabad rabbi sent to Cologne, in 1994. “We see in the Diaspora, Jews come and go. They are somewhere for 600, 700 years and they leave. … German Jews are moved around, but something godly here is bringing them back.”


Irina Rivkina, 53, moved to Germany from Kazakhstan 16 years ago, and her children now attend a Jewish school and sing in a Jewish choir in Cologne. At Chabad’s Hanukkah candle-lighting, she said she was thrilled to be able to be Jewish in Germany. This year, her son was pictured on the front of the Chabad calendar, blasting a shofar.

Law student Margalit Israelnova, 25, was born in the Caucausus but now lives in Cologne; she was also at the Hanukkah event, where she danced with the crowd. “I have a good relationship with the Chabad and synagogue,” she said. “It’s nice because there are a lot of young people.”

The public candle-lighting, blocks from a massive Christmas market, drew curious non-Jewish Cologners as well. A German student who gave only his first name, Moritz, came with a Jewish friend for the third year. “It’s unusual to see Jewish people in Germany, and this is a good place,” he said. “I like it. It’s different from the regular Christian stuff.”

But not everyone is drawn to Chabad’s style of Judaism, centered on observing the Orthodox rules. Fischer says she is looking for a more cultural experience that focuses on the community’s history and on Jewish food, music, and literature from around the world. Fischer, 31, grew up in Serbia without much Jewish background. She spent four teenage years in Israel, but other than that, led a largely secular life. Thirteen years ago she moved to Germany to study, and five years ago she moved to Cologne. When their daughter was 3, Fischer and her Croatian-born Jewish husband searched for a kindergarten for her, but found the city schools were all full; the only available space was at the Jewish school. Fischer remembers her first walk down the hallways, where pictures of Jewish holiday traditions hang on the walls.

“By that time I didn’t have any connection or contact with Jews in Germany at all,” Fischer said. “I came here for the first time, and I saw these pictures on the walls, and it felt like home.”

Then Fischer’s son, Daniel, was born, and her husband insisted that he be circumcised. Fischer cried—and then enlisted in Judaism courses with Rabbi Yaron Engelmayer, who heads the city’s main Roonstrasse synagogue, to better understand her roots. Soon after, she and a friend launched a weekly Jewish lecture series in a local coffee shop. Now Fischer wants to create a permanent place where Jewish Cologners can casually meet to share their culture with each other and their non-Jewish neighbors.

Her center would offer an informal version of Jewish life she says is missing in Cologne. Every synagogue or school has state-mandated security officers; Fischer says this scares off visitors. For now, she is grasping for the way to be culturally Jewish, without the religious trappings of Chabad. “You can sit and learn the Torah if you want to, and there’s a lot of intellectual lectures,” she said. “But a place where you eat international Jewish food, or you hear Jewish music, or where you just see Jewish stuff around you—there is no place like that.”

Fischer got her college degree in Germany and speaks the language fluently. But she has yet to master the ins and outs of Germany’s and the global Jewish community. Money for her Jewish cultural center has proven elusive: Local rabbis, philanthropists, and businesses have less to give than she hoped for. Fischer relies on a friend traveling through New York to bring back reports of how the American Jewish community works, hoping this might help her with her plans for Cologne. Fischer talks about New York as though it were the Goldene Medinah—where the streets are paved with Jewish culture. “My friend wrote to me about the 92nd Street Y [in New York], and I said, ‘Wow, I want our place to be like this,’ ” Fischer said. Fischer’s quest for funding continues. Her Jewish cultural café will be a monument to her family’s journey to a spiritual identity. “It’s a life project,” she said. “It’s not one kosher coffee shop we build up, but rather something that should last.”

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.

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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Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.