I have been to Berlin many times visiting family, being a tourist and experiencing Judaism in Germany, so it is important to understand what it’s like being Jewish in Germany compared to being Jewish here in Atlanta.
If you haven’t been to Germany at all, you might not have a perception of what Berlin is like today. If your perception is based on World War II movies, you might think that Berlin is still in ruins looking like it was after the Allied bombings during the war. Nothing can be further from the truth. Berlin is a major, modern city with roads in better shape than Atlanta, with extensive trains and buses that can reach any part of the city, and students ride free.
The shopping and restaurants rival anything, if not better, than what we have in Atlanta. All the upscale shops are in Berlin, and the symphony hall is nicer than our own symphony complex. You will find many remnants of World War II here, but only as memorials.
When it comes to remembering the Holocaust, Berlin has Atlanta beat by a mile, as it should. There is a square block in the center of the city located near the Brandenburg Gate that is one of the city’s most impressive sights. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern over 4.7 acres. The slabs plunge out of the ground vertically with varied heights. It’s a major tourist attraction.
There is a museum called “Topography of Terror” because all the terror carried out by the German government was devised in Berlin, as well as interrogations and the torture of those who opposed the Nazi regime. There are brass plaques on the sidewalks throughout the city telling the places where the Jews lived, when they were arrested, where and when they were sent to concentration camps, and dates of their deaths. Thank G-d there’s nothing comparable in Atlanta. There is also a walking tour of where the Jews lived in Berlin before the war.
There are six kosher restaurants and cafes and 11 synagogues active in Berlin. Almost all of them are Orthodox, and a couple of them are Conservative (called “masorti”). Reform synagogues do not exist in Berlin. All of the synagogues are protected 24/7 by state police. When you go to any synagogue in Berlin, you will find security outside of the buildings, first from the police and often from Jews who work there. For some of the synagogues, there are double security doors, offering much more protection than what we have in Atlanta. The service follows the traditional service you would expect in Atlanta. The synagogue buildings are significant and capable of handling hundreds of worshipers.
There are about 30,000 Jews in Berlin and 4,000 Jews in Cologne. Many are from Russia and Israel. In Germany, at your job, you are asked to identify your religion. You can refuse to do that, but if you do identify as Jewish then the State takes nine percent of your income tax for religious purposes and sends that money to the Jewish Federation to support various Jewish groups, including the synagogues, schools, and Jewish organizations. This translates to about $175 per Jewish family per year, which significantly replaces the need for charitable contributions.
In Berlin, there are three kosher butchers, distinctly at a lower level than Spicy Peach or The Kosher Gourmet in Toco Hills. The main Berlin store carries a large variety of canned products from Israel, as well as frozen meat items, but there is no fresh kosher meat available. When it comes to bread, there are bakeries all over the city, and the breads are significantly better than what is available in Atlanta. When it comes to kosher wine, the selection is substantially broader than what is available in Atlanta since wines from Israel are plentiful.
The Jewish Museum, another major attraction, was constructed by a famous architect to associate it with the various concentration camps that existed during the war. You have to go there to feel the difference as you walk through the building. There is also a Jewish bookstore in the center of one of the main shopping centers, and it is protected by police.
There are Jewish day schools, though they are smaller in size than Atlanta’s, and the cost is mostly paid by the Jewish Federation. Not only are Jewish day schools significantly lower in cost, but college in Germany is essentially free. This writer’s grandchildren went to a Jewish Day School until high school, and now they are in a private high school significantly lower in cost than a private high school in Atlanta, and half their classes are in German and half in English. And health care is also covered by salary deductions, so that living as a Jew in Berlin does not involve having to choose either paying to educate your child Jewishly or taking care of most of your medical needs.
Purchasing a gun in Germany is very difficult and requires a very defined need, training to use the gun, and document information sent to the state of your ownership. Murders in Germany by guns are very rare, so children travel alone by public transportation at most hours of the day and night without fear.
Some Jews in the U.S. will not visit Germany because of the Holocaust, and that is their right. There is certainly concern about antisemitism in Germany as in America, but it seems that living in Germany is perhaps the safest country in Europe, and perhaps, even safer than in the U.S.