Beaumont Shapiro, a fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR/Los Angeles, writes:
I was surprised by the number of people who asked me how I could even consider visiting Germany as a Jew, much less as a rabbinic student, I was surprised because I had no animosity or distain for Germans or Germany. In my view, I had no more right to hold Germans responsible for the Holocaust than African-Americans had to hold me responsible for slavery. Regardless, when the opportunity presented itself, I was intrigued at the prospect of traveling to Germany and examining it through a Jewish lens.
I had the pleasure of participating in the “Germany Close Up” program this past spring, facilitated by Dr. Leah Hochman of the Los Angeles campus. Our class was structured so that we had completed extensive historical reading and participated in several seminars, prior to the trip. These seminars made use of our e-classroom so that students on all three stateside campuses could participate. This was the first experience I have had in an e-classroom where all three campuses are linked and I can say that I thought the technology worked well. Once on the ground in Berlin, the real learning began.
I had spent a small amount of time in Germany before, but never in Berlin, and never looking through a Jewish lens, so to speak. I was continually struck and impressed by the degree to which history informs Germany as a nation, as well as German citizens as individuals. This is not exclusive to Holocaust history, but includes the Soviet history as well. Everywhere you walk in Berlin, everyone you speak with, is clearly aware of, and informed by, the nation’s past. The ways in which the Holocaust is memorialized in both the camps, many of which have been turned into museums and visitors centers to teach about the atrocities, as well as monuments and memorials one encounters in virtually every city in the country, is truly impressive.
Most interesting to me were small gold stones that can be found littering the sidewalks of the country. Most of the sidewalks in Germany are cobblestone and frequently, you’ll come across a small gold cobblestone with an inscription on it. The inscription might read: “Abraham Schwartz boarded a train to Auchwitz here,” or “Anshe Emet Synagogue was destroyed here.” These small stones mark small and forgettable moments of the Holocaust - they are both completely miss-able and utterly inescapable—they are everywhere. This is a conscious choice made by the government to memorialize in this fashion: they are saying that this could be easily forgotten, but that in reality it surrounds us, it happened here, and there, and everywhere, and we cannot hide from it, we cannot escape it. I can hardly imagine the United States placing stones marking all the places Native Americans were mistreated or African-Americans were enslaved or Japanese-Americans were interned during World War Two. The role of history in the lives of Germans and of Germany is indeed impressive; there is certainly a social historical awareness that does not exist in the U.S.
Most of all however, I came away from this trip with a nuanced appreciation for our own Reform movement here in the States. We are the luckiest Jews who have ever lived, and the dynamic, vibrant, and progressive Judaism that we love only exists here, and is only possible because of the history of our founders in Germany. Prewar German Judaism was by and large liberal. This fusion of German intellectual ideals and progressive Jewish culture and thought gave rise to Reform Judaism and, as we say, the rest is history.
The visit to the old Ashkenazi communities in Worms and Speyer was by far my favorite part of the trip. In Worms we visited the oldest Jewish cemetery in all of Europe, somehow trapped in time and preserved in a forgotten corner of a town that today has no Jews. In this pastoral setting, amongst the trees and tall grass, are graves that are nearly a thousand years old. Walking through this cemetery, I saw the headstones of the rabbinic sages who we study about in our Talmud and Codes classes. To feel as though I was walking in the footsteps of these great men put my study of the texts they artfully crafted into an entirely different context.
Many of us at one time or another in our lives, study our family genealogy trying to figure out where we come from and who we are. So too is it essential that we do this for our Judaism. We have to spend time in Germany, soaking up the culture and the flavor, studying the history of our people there so that we can better understand who we are as 21st Century Reform Jews, striving to help Judaism evolve in an ever changing world.