The photo above represents the fulfillment of a dream. Pastor Ursula Sieg undertook to translate and see to the publication of a German edition of my book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. On a trip to the United States Ursula and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening and I spent hours in the magnificent sanctuary of Congregation Beth Israel with professional photographer Lena Stein searching for just the right cover art for the German edition. The photo they chose—most appropriate—is of Abraham and Sarah beginning the faith journey that launched not only the Jewish religion but Christianity and Islam as well.
In order to bring this project to fruition, Pastor Sieg enlisted the expert editorial skills of Dr. Serafine Kratzke and established a publishing house that she named “Mutual Blessing Edition.” Pastor Sieg’s passion for creating greater inter-religious harmony and her belief in the value of What’s in It for Me? inspired her to put many months of effort into the publication.
It all began in the summer of 2012 when Pastor Sieg and I met during the time she studied at Hartford Seminary while on Sabbatical from her post as Head of School-Church Relations in a district of the Lutheran Church in Northern Germany. Neither of us realized at that time how mutually beneficial our conversations would become.
A year later Pastor Sieg then visited Vickie and me for Chanukah while I was serving as Visiting Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Milan, Italy. Pastor Sieg made a very positive impression on all of the congregants who met her.
There our conversations deepened, and she began making arrangements to bring Vickie and me to northern Germany for ten weeks the following year. In preparation for that her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening convinced his church board to remodel their pastorate to accommodate Vickie and me in a gracious manner as their guests for ten weeks.
Vickie and I will never forget looking from our balcony as Sukkot approached and seeing Ursula and Martin in the garden secretly constructing a sukkah so that we could celebrate our harvest holiday as we do at home. They then welcomed local guests to sit in the pastorate’s Sukkah! It was also our pleasure to invite them for Shabbat dinner in their own home several times.
As a major focus of our visit Pastor Sieg conceived, created and curated a marvelous exhibit, Back Home – New Jewish life in Schleswig-Holstein, together with several students and their teacher Wolfgang Henke at the Holstenschule in Neumünster. The museum quality exhibit chronicled the life and travels of Vickie’s 94-year-old mother, Stefanie Steinberg.
Born in 1921, Stefanie’s childhood came to an abrupt end when her family had to flee her native Breslau from the Nazis and settle in Spain in 1936. Six months later the Spanish Civil War broke out, and Stefanie’s family had to flee again all to different places. Stefanie lived in an orphanage in Switzerland until barely a month after her seventeenth birthday. In 1938 she and her mother boarded ship in France to begin a new life in a new country for the third time in two years. Eventually she made her way to California by herself. She reconnected there with a gentleman she met on the ship coming to the USA, Richard Steinberg. They married and settled in Los Angeles and then in San Francisco.
The Holstenschule displayed the exhibition of three weeks. Hundreds of students saw it and met Vickie and me for lectures and conversation. Many of them had never before met living Jews.
In other duties I served as visiting rabbi at the Jüdische Gemeinde in Kiel, preached in several Lutheran Churches and spoke at the Anne Frank Schule in Bargteheide. I also delivered the semester opening lecture of the University of Potsdam School of Jewish Theology and conducted a seminar for rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.
Pastor Sieg also arranged for me to experience one of the emotional highlights of my life: Speaking at three different Kristallnacht commemoratives in Leipzig, the city where my father, of blessed memory, was arrested that fateful night. I spoke at the stream that flows through the city zoo where Jews were forced to stand while people jeered and threw mud at them, at the site of the Great Synagogue in Leipzig, burned to the ground on Kristallnacht and now a haunting memorial, and at the famous Thomaskirche where Johan Sebastian Bach once served as organist and choirmaster.
Whenever I spoke in English, Pastor Sieg translated my words into German as I went along. When I wanted to deliver two of my Leipzig speeches in German, I wrote them out, and Pastor Sieg translated them for me. Then she painstakingly drilled me—over and over—on my German pronunciation.
Our trip last year inspired Pastor Sieg to want us to come back again this year. Again she spent many hours over several months making all of the arrangements.
This year Back Home will tour six different schools. Vickie and I will visit each of them to talk with the students. Pastor Sieg has also arranged several events promoting the German edition of What’s in It for Me? I shall once again, preach and speak in several Lutheran Churches, and it will also be my privilege to conduct two seminars at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin.
I have also accepted the invitation to conduct High Holy Day services at the Reform synagogue in Bad Segeberg. Currently, the Bad Segeberg community worships and holds its educational and social activities in a beautiful building. But when the synagogue first started 13 years ago, the leaders knocked on the door of Ursula and Martin’s pastorate who welcomed their Jewish neighbors with open arms and provided the facilities for them to meet during their early years. Without Ursula and Martin’s enthusiastic cooperation, the Bad Segeberg synagogue might never have gotten off the ground.
At that time Pastors Sieg and Pommerening took the initiative to establish an annual interfaith community event to show the public in Bad Segeberg how different religions live together peacefully. The purpose of this event is to prevent attempts to misuse the differences between religions to create hate or resentment. It was a joy for Vickie and me to participate in this Day of Harmony last year.
A few months ago, Pastor Sieg suggested that I write a short (300 words) Quick Comment on the Torah portion of the coming Shabbat. She offered to translate each one into German so that German readers will have greater access to my ideas and will therefore be more eager to read the German edition of my book. We began this process at the end of Exodus and think that a side-by-side edition of English and German Torah commentaries might one day make another worthwhile book.
What motivates Ursula to do all of these wonderful things? First she is a lover and keenly critical reader of the Hebrew Bible. She believes my thoughts and teachings about the Torah can deepen it’s understanding for Jews, Christians and everybody else. Second she hopes to help repair the broken relationship between and Jews and non-Jews in Germany and to ease the pain of Holocaust survivors. Finally she wants Germany to be a warm, welcoming place for people of all faiths to live together in harmony.
If Pastor Sieg simply tended to the day-to-day needs of her very busy schedule, she would have more than enough to do. The fact that she eagerly and cheerfully works so hard to create a positive interfaith climate in Germany is truly remarkable.