American Rabbi Is Defiantly Hopeful After Surviving German Synagogue Shooting

As news of a deadly attack on a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle spread around the world on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, a video of the survivors started circulating on Facebook.

They had crowded onto a bus after being taken to a local hospital to be evaluated for signs of shock and trauma. Despite the violence they’d just faced, they were boisterously singing, “Am Yisrael chai,” meaning, “The people of Israel live.”

In the Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is a day when God seals a decree regarding the fate of every person for the upcoming year. Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz, one of a group of Americans who was on that bus, said that the survivors felt deeply in that moment that they had been suspended between two worlds, between life and death, and had somehow come out alive.

“We were alive and other people had died,” Borovitz told HuffPost. “It was a joy that was certainly tinged with sadness.”

When the song ended, one passenger sounded a long note on the shofar, an ancient musical instrument used in Jewish rituals. Then people were dancing down the bus’ narrow aisle ― singing, clapping, spinning and smiling.

It is this spirit of defiance, of life bursting through even in the darkest of times, that Borovitz wants people around the world to remember about this tragedy.

“Sometimes in the face of terrible hatred and sadness, I think we have to express joy for the miracles we have,” the rabbi said. “Even if we can’t explain everything about what happened or why some lived and some didn’t.”

The attack on the Halle synagogue sent shockwaves through Germany’s Jewish communities and renewed fears about anti-Semitic violence in a country still scarred by the Holocaust. The synagogue’s sturdy front door prevented the suspected gunman, a confessed far-right anti-Semite, from entering the house of worship where 51 Jews had gathered to pray. However, the shooter managed to kill two bystanders, identified in German media as Jana Lange and Kevin S., before he was captured by authorities.

Borovitz was part of a group of about 23 Germans and Americans who had come to Halle to visit with the city’s small Jewish community and bring a renewed energy to Yom Kippur services. 

Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz and his wife Rabbi Rebecca Blady moved to Berlin in May to create Base Berlin, an initiative of Hillel Germany. Blady serves as Base Berlin’s executive director, while Borovitz is its senior Jewish educator. (Photo: Courtesy Base Berlin)

That mission of renewal is what drew Borovitz and his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Blady, to Germany in the first place. Earlier this year, the ordained couple packed up their life in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood with a big dream ― to be part of the resurgence of Jewish life in that city.

Borovitz said this kind of work has long been a passion for him and his wife. He remembers that one of his first conversations with Blady, the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, was about what it means to be Jewish in Europe. 

In 1933, the Jewish population of Berlin was about 160,000, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Thousands fled the city as their rights were curtailed under the Nazis. Beginning in 1942, more than 60,000 Jews were deported from Berlin, many of whom were later killed in concentration camps. Only about 8,000 Jews were left in the city by 1945.

Since then, Berlin’s Jewish community has experienced a dramatic revival ― first driven by the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and later by immigrants from Israel, Australia, France, the United States and other countries. 

Flowers and candles are seen outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany, October 10, 2019, after two people were killed in a shooting. (Photo: Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters)

Borovitz said signs of Berlin’s dark history are still everywhere. The streets of the city are embedded with “stumbling stones,” cobblestone-sized brass plaques placed in front of houses where Holocaust victims once lived.

“You can’t ignore the past here,” Borovitz said about the stones. “The past is part of who we are and the past informs who we are. But it doesn’t have to define everything about who we are.” 

Borovitz and Blady first came to Berlin for a monthlong stay in 2016, through a rabbinical school fellowship, Borovitz said. They rented an apartment and, as an experiment, threw a party for people interested in learning about Jewish life. About 27 people ― mostly strangers ― showed up, he said, which the couple took as a sign that there was a “thirst” for this kind of community in Berlin. 

“There’s nowhere where I think Jewish revival is more acute today than it is in Berlin,” Borovitz said. “I think people really want to learn, they want to know, they want to build, to create. I also think there’s a soul to this city and to this place that really breathes and infuses Jewish life, which I think gives it a unique character.” 

Rabbis Jeremy Borovitz and Rebecca Blady host discussions about Jewish life, ritual and identity in their Berlin apartment.  (Photo: Courtesy Base Berlin)

In May, Borovitz and Blady relocated to Berlin and officially launched Base Berlin, the first international outpost of the Base Movement, a network of Jewish community centers run out of rabbis’ homes. The goal of the project, which is affiliated with the U.S.-based student organization Hillel International, is to build Jewish communities and educate young adults and families about the Jewish rituals, theology and identity.

People swing by the couple’s apartment to partake in Shabbat dinners, observe the holidays, attend Torah classes and learn how to bring Judaism into their own homes. 

Borovitz said folks who show up for their events come from a variety of backgrounds and levels of religiosity. Some come looking for community, others for knowledge about Jewish rituals. They get many participants whose families came from the former Soviet Union, Borovitz said, and who are now teaching their own parents about Judaism. 

For Yom Kippur this year, Borovitz said the group wanted to visit a smaller Jewish community, where the synagogues may not be as full as they are in larger cities. Someone had a connection with a Jewish leader in Halle, which is why the group traveled to that city for the high holiday.

Halle once had one of the largest Jewish communities in central Germany, The Guardian reported. But in 1938, mobs torched Halle’s grand synagogue during Kristallnacht, a night of nationwide Nazi-instigated violence that targeted German Jews. The city’s Jewish community has reportedly shrunk to about 700 people today. The congregation now meets in the old synagogue’s former funeral home.

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Flowers and candles are placed next to the door of the Halle synagogue, days after a right-wing extremist attack on the congregation.  (Photo: Hendrik Schmidt/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa / picture alliance via Getty Images)

When a loud explosion interrupted the Yom Kippur service this year, Borovitz credits the leaders of Halle’s Jewish community with doing whatever they could to keep everyone safe and calm.

Borovitz said those inside the synagogue knew that they had been attacked, but the details were sketchy. It was only later that they realized that the shooter had killed two people.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about them since it happened,” he said about the victims. “It’s really heartbreaking that they lost their lives in this senseless act of hatred.”

The synagogue was placed on lockdown and worshippers decided to continue the prayer service for another few hours before being evacuated to a local hospital. Afterwards, survivors gathered in the hospital cafeteria to conduct the Neilah, the final part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, “on our own terms,” Borovitz said. 

In the days since the attack, Borovitz said the couple’s priority has been making sure that everyone from the group has the help they need to cope with their trauma. 

“It’s definitely impacted us,” he said. “And it’s impacted how we think about security. How do we remain as open as possible while being as safe as possible? All those questions are there.” 

Base Berlin is the first international outpost of the U.S.-based Base Movement. (Photo: Courtesy Base Berlin)

On a personal level, he said he’s still processing the fact that, after years of hearing about the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, he’s now a personal witness to it.

“It’s very surreal,” he said. “Definitely the one thing that keeps flying through my mind is I don’t want to be remembered for the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

Less than a week after the attack, Base Berlin was already getting ready for another Jewish holiday ― Sukkot. During this ancient festival, it’s traditional for people to erect temporary huts outside their homes to remember how God protected Jews during their exodus from Egypt.

It’s a holiday that is meant to be joyous and celebratory. So on Oct. 17, Base Berlin’s community members built a sukkah in a local beer garden, snacked on sausages and pretzels, listened to music and danced.

There is “real, deep, meaningful Jewish life happening in Berlin,” Borovitz said ― and that’s what he wants to focus on.

“There’s something about anti-Semitism in Germany that gets people’s attentions and we understand that. We can’t ignore history,” Borovitz said. “But we want people to focus on the life that is happening here, and there is incredible life happening here.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.