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A Revived Congregation’s New Vision Has Old Roots

Berlin’s Neue Synagogue draws an unusually diverse crowd—but that’s been true since it opened more than 150 years ago

Elisabeth Becker
June 14, 2021
Schieblich/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Schieblich/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Schieblich/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Schieblich/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Erected in parallel with German Jewish emancipation at the end of the 19th century, the Neue Synagogue in Berlin embodied, even in its building’s powerful visibility, the promise of full Jewish inclusion. Spearheading Judaism’s new Liberal movement, it was the first in Germany to use the German language in its prayer books, and innovated by uniting men’s and women’s voices in prayer. Today, prayer books in Hebrew, German, English, and French are available in the synagogue’s main sanctuary. It is also the first in the city to become gender-desegregated. This focus on pluralism and equality echoes the synagogue’s past. Since its construction in 1866, the Neue Synagogue has always—in its words, its texts, and its striking architectural form—chosen inclusion over division.

The description of the building’s history on the Neue Synagogue website begins: “Jews. Berliners. Citizens.” An architectural wonder built to invoke the Alhambra, it came to signify the social embeddedness of Jews in Berlin by indelibly marking the cityscape with its striking domes of blue and gold. “They chose this Moorish architecture in order to say, ‘we belong,’ that Germany today [in the late 19th century] is like the golden age of Jews and Muslims and Christians living together in Spain,” explained Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, the first female rabbi in Berlin since WWII. (Regina Jones, a Berliner and the first female rabbi ordained in Germany, was murdered in Auschwitz.) Ederberg has led the synagogue’s revitalized congregation since 1998.

Today, the Neue Synagogue has perhaps the most diverse membership in Berlin—LGBTQI Jews, intermarried families, and a large number of converts, including its rabbi. While some have criticized Ederberg and her flock as being too outside of the mainstream, the current congregants have embraced the Neue Synagogue’s legacy as a welcoming place.

The Neue Synagogue in its first incarnation sought not only inclusion in the mainstream, through the German language and its location in the center of the city, but also new forms of Jewish inclusion from within, forging a middle path built on compromise between strands of Orthodoxy and Reform. Community members joked, as it stood on the corner of Artillery Street (Artilleriestrasse, today Tucholskystrasse), that it offered “light artillery” rather than the “heavy artillery” of the Orthodox institution located around the corner. The music of conductor Louis Lewandowski, who created the so-called “German rite,” an innovative enmeshment of religious and secular melodies, filled the air.

Yet the fragile and short-lived promise of Jewish inclusion in the German capital was shattered by the rise of Nazism. The synagogue was set on fire in 1938, like so many others, during Kristallnacht (albeit saved from complete destruction by police officer Wilhelm Krützfeld, who ordered the fires extinguished) and later used as a warehouse and prison under Nazi rule. The SS regime also painted the Neue Synagogue domes gray in order to camouflage them from Allied forces. During the Holocaust, the Scheunenviertel, the central Berlin neighborhood where the synagogue stands, was emptied of Jews. At a nearby memorial, surrounded by the former homes of murdered Jews, a poem by Nelly Sachs is etched into the ground. It begins with the words “O die Wohnungen des Todes (Oh the houses of death).”

The building’s interior, shown in ‘Berlin und seine Bauten,’ published by Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, 1896
The building’s interior, shown in ‘Berlin und seine Bauten,’ published by Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, 1896Wikipedia

The Neue Synagogue was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943; only the entrance hall and outer façade remained intact at the end of WWII. Following the war, the few German Jewish survivors in East Berlin, then part of the German Democratic Republic, began to congregate in the building next door, as the synagogue was too damaged to use. Like most buildings in East Germany, the building was confiscated, in 1972, by the GDR.

As a shell of its former self—hollow and domeless, a now gray building unremarkable against often gray skies—the Neue Synagogue was transferred to a foundation created for the Berlin Jewish community in 1988, on the eve of German reunification, to complete its restoration. This process included the preservation of its remaining architectural bones—its façade and entryway—and the reconstruction of its domes.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, another congregation began to take its shape under the blue and gold domes of the new Neue Synagogue. First meeting on Fasanenstrasse in 1995, in a community center classroom, in 1998 this Masorti congregation moved into the renovated building—a building that has also come to house the Jewish Community of Berlin and the Centrum Judaicum (a foundation overseeing both a museum and Jewish historical archives inside the Neue Synagogue).

The Neue Synagogue community, in its present as in its past, embodies a struggle to find both belonging and balance as Jews in Judaism, in Berlin, and in Germany. It has always been a place in which Jewish Berliners grappled with external and internal questions over inclusion. Today, it invites inclusion in many forms: Its membership is open to all genders and sexual orientations, as well as to those converting or returning to Judaism, with congregants hailing from across the globe. In Ederberg’s words: “We are egalitarian-traditional in terms of service styles, participatory, family-oriented and LBGTQI-straight inclusive. The baseline grew out of a need for a participatory, egalitarian space.”

This egalitarian focus has come to define the current congregation. In a powerfully symbolic moment early in Ederberg’s leadership, congregants broke down the lattice panel erected to divide men from women during the rebuilding of the synagogue’s sanctuary.

Sarah Majetschak, who grew up in the Neue Synagogue community, reflected, “I really enjoyed as a young girl growing up, that we were asked to read the Torah. I think it’s so important to have in Berlin because it’s the only synagogue where there was a female rabbi. Not everyone is comfortable with that, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But I thought it was great that we had this perspective.”

This synagogue was never “everyone’s cup of tea.” It has always been characterized by controversy, even in its first years as it strove—perhaps because it strove—to be an egalitarian place for everyone. While built in 1866 with space for 3,000, only 200 seats were filled on Shabbat. Its hybrid form—in language, in music, and in its position between Orthodoxy and Reform—has proved uncomfortable for some. Ederberg’s 1998 appointment was vocally opposed by Berlin’s senior Orthodox Rabbi Yitzchak Ehrenberg, some say on account of her gender and others because she converted to Judaism.

Current and past congregants have emphasized that the Neue Synagogue is disproportionately popular both with women looking for an egalitarian space and with converts (with estimates of half or over half of the congregation having converted to Judaism). Raised in a secular Jewish family, Andrea Mihail, a congregation member for the past 14 years and current synagogue board member, began her own religious practice in this community. “I like that it is inclusive and egalitarian. I simply did not find a place I liked as a woman elsewhere in Berlin,” she explained. “This is a community in which learning and development is important and it encouraged me to grow into and explore religion. It’s not a secret that many of our congregants are converts. Many have Jewish ancestry or come from mixed families, Others come without any connections to Judaism—everyone is on their Jewish journey in this community and I value this a lot.”

Ederberg echoes this sentiment, explaining that the broad spectrum of congregants, including a large number of converts, relates both to her leadership—as a key symbolic figure demonstrative of the egalitarian possibilities within Berlin’s Jewish life—and to the general tone of acceptance within the community. “Many people who are active in the synagogue share this story of rediscovering their Judaism or becoming Jewish, and the leadership does join me in making every effort that anybody walking through the door feels welcome.”

Of the choice to include the Neue Synagogue among only dozens of objects selected by the Leo Baeck Institute to represent Jewish life in Central Europe, the institute’s executive director, William H. Weitzer, explained, “Jews in the 1860s were really benefiting from an era of liberalism that was on the rise in Prussia, of which Berlin was a part. And what did they do? They built this big, bold, architecturally distinct synagogue. What does it tell? It tells a story of pride and prosperity and confidence. ‘We are here, we don’t need to hide, we are a part of the cityscape but we also are distinct.’ … So the fact is that the Neue Synagogue still sits there, and it’s of the 19th century, but also speaks to us today.”

Over 150 years ago, in a time of sociocultural renaissance, of possibility, and reinvention for Jews in Germany, the domes of the synagogue took their rightful place amid the other, Christian domes that cut through Berlin’s skies. And underneath those reconstructed domes, in another time of sociocultural renaissance, of possibility, and reinvention for Jews in Germany—whether by chance or kismet, out of hope or redemption—an inclusive Jewish community has again taken form. It is not the same—though contemporary wounds and anxieties are visible in the form of metal barriers and armed guards outside—but it is home, again, to Jewish life in Berlin.

Elisabeth Becker is a sociologist, currently the Freigeist Fellow at Heidelberg University.