It is a heady but eerie feeling to preach in a church with a cornerstone with the year 1220 on it and to have one of the community leaders inform you that you are the first rabbi to preach there in the church’s history. “Many of our worshippers,” he continued, “have never seen a Jew before.”
It was not a unique example. When I spoke in German churches in towns and villages like Schulensee, Kaltenkirchen, Bordesholm, Husum, Friedrichsstadt and even in cities as large as Leipzig, Neumünster or Kiel, I was almost always the first rabbi to ever speak there, and for many worshippers, I was the first living Jew that the worshippers had ever seen.
To be “the first” is both a privilege and a burden. I am ever mindful the impression those to whom I speak will have of Jews and Judaism depends on what I say and the way I say it.
For four years it has been my privilege and that of my wife Vickie to spend part of the year in Germany. There, in addition to my work in synagogues and churches, we teach together in German high schools about the Holocaust. To facilitate our lessons, we use a wonderful exhibit about Vickie’s own 97-year-old mother, Stefanie Steinberg. She was born in Breslau and was uprooted along with her family in 1936 when the Nazi government informed her father, a respected Radiologist who had served in the German army during World War I that he could no longer be a physician in Germany. The family moved to Barcelona, but after the Civil War erupted in Spain, the family dispersed, and Stefanie lived in a Kinderheimin Switzerland. When she was 17, she made her way to New York and eventually to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
High School students find her story enthralling, and some have reached out to connect with her personally. Almost all the students to whom we speak have never seen a rabbi before; many have never seen a Jew.
“Being the first” causes Vickie and me to feel a special responsibility similar to the one I feel when I speak or teach in German churches. We want students to know about the Shoah, and its horrors. But I constantly say to students and parishioners to whom I speak:
Wir können die Vergangenheit nicht ungeschehen machen, aber wir können gemeinsam an einer besseren Zukunft arbeiten.We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape.
If in some small way, our experiences in Germany and the essays in this book can somehow contribute to that besseren Zukunft –that better future, our efforts will be amply rewarded.