Category Archives: Cantors Mission

Cantors Mission to Germany Day 7

Our morning begins with a trip to Dachau, not more than a 30 minute drive from downtown Munich. Dachau Concentration camp was the first to open in Germany in 1933, the only fully functioning camp for the 12 yrs of the Holocaust. While the site had a crematoria and gas chamber, the majority of those who perished in the camp (some 40,000) died of disease and malnutrition. Hundreds of individuals would be crammed in a barrack like sardines. What is interesting about the camp is the staging- two barracks were “recreated” since the original barracks were destroyed (they had been in poor condition following the war and they did not create the museum until 1965.) Having visited places like Majdanek, where barracks/gas chamber/crematoria remain intact, it’s difficult to visit a camp where it seems like there was some form of coverup (where intentional or not). The platforms remain from each barrack, stones fill the roads and the barrack platforms.

We daven Shaharit and hold a memorial service, filled with songs and texts recognizing those were lost. Following a tour of the rest of the camp, we convene again for a moving el malei rechamim, a prayer in memory of those who perished in the Shoah. As the signs say throughout the camp, “never forget.” We opened with an important reading written by reuven Hammer:

The ark of the Torah, of faith, of learning stands empty and bereft.

WE have come here to remember those who cannot be forgotten.

WE have come to speak of that which cannot be spoken; but cannot be left unsaid.

WE know how to remember the dead we have known.

WE know how to commemorate the death of one person.

But all of us are mourners; all of us recall not one but six million ones.

Not only those we have known, but those no one can know, the names that are forever lost…

Our next event takes place at the Jewish Museum/Community Center in the heart of historic Munich. The fact that this building is here, in such a central location, is a testament to the Jewish community’s revival. Hazzan Elliot Vogel conducts a moving memorial to the 11 victims of the ’72 olympics- Rabbi Laura Metzger reads a biography of each victim as a member of the Cantors Assembly holds a poster-sized photograph of each of them. It is pointed out that 20 million minutes have passed since the ’72 olympics, yet all we ask for is one minute of silence to recognize the innocence that was lost. Again, the ceremony is filled with musical renditions that enhance the moment. This is a different moment than the one we experienced at the memorial site the day before, and yet it is just as important.

Finally, we have our 2nd to last lecture by Professor Berke. Some food for thought:

1) It is estimated that there were over 20,000 concentration camps during the Holocaust, some that held 4 or 5 prisoners, others that held 500,000. While some may have been more gruesome than others, each was inhumane, each was an abomination, each destroyed innocent lives.

2) During the Euthanasia campagain from ’38 on, 300,000 handicapped were murdered.  While the Catholic church was silent when it came to the Jewish plight, they did help stop the Euthanasia campaign.

So two questions- why didn’t the German Jews pick up on the changing of the times and why did Germans do very little to stop these atrocities?

Part 1: German Jews.  If you want to understand the Jewish behavior at the beginning of the Holocaust, it is the fundamental inability to believe. As stated earlier, this was the century that was supposed to be Germany’s century.  Anti-semitism always existed…This perspective was met with a large group of German Jews who fled Germany before and during the difficult years.

Part 2: Germans. It’s difficult to see how the population can go from anti-semitic bullying to torture and unthinkable acts against other human beings.  One of the most salient aspects of the Shoah is that Hitler transforms from “settling accounts with the jews” in his pre-war rhetoric to “we must deal with jews for what they are doing to us now” (autumn of ’41).  Everything was blamed on someone else, and everyone marched towards their fuhrer.  There’s an assimtry between those who focused on destroying the Jewish population vs. focusing on the war efforts. It seems illogical when fighting a war to focus your efforts on everything but your front line.

In any event, even for those who wanted to save Jews (righteous gentiles not withstanding), it was not their first or second priority.  How can the Germans do this?

1) Ideology from 1933 changed

2) Battalion 101- An order is an order? They felt it was better to be a policeman in Poland rather than die on the eastern front.

3) Downright anti-semitism. Berke brings up two examples – one quote that Jews were the gangrene of society, and that it was important to remove the limb…The other is a story by Primo Levi: In 1945, Levi had been collecting ice from outside his barrack so he would have some water to drink.  A guard knocked the cup over, spilling all of the water on the ground.  Levi asked “Why did you do that?” The guard replied, “Here there is no why!”

With all these backdrop from Professor Berke, it makes it more and more difficult to see how this can magically disappear overnight with one or two generations.   That’s for tomorrow’s blog. Here’s a clip from the Cantor at the adjacent Ohel Jakob synagogue

Cantors Mission to Germany Day 6

After a late morning chartered flight, we arrive in Munich around 11am. Our checked luggage was driven overnight, so we are able to pick up with a panoramic view of Munich right away! We spend most of the day at Olympic Park- viewing the olympic pool, the walls recognizing all the champions of the ’72 olympics, and finally a memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the ’72 games. While the Olympic community has yet to recognize this tragedy at any of the games (and has concluded it will not make a moment of silence recognizing the 40th anniversary), it is important to recognize that this memorial is forever linked to the Olympic park.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, sometimes we don’t have the words to properly express a moment. Music and its counterpoint, silence, serve as ambassadors, awakening the soul to a new realm of being when words don’t do the moment justice. A somewhat impromptu el malei takes place as members of two of our buses are gathered around the memorial. A todah rabah to Hazzan Bob Scherr for chanting so beautifully, and allowing that space, in that time, for a moment of silence. Having just viewed a short documentary on the bus about the Munich games, the moment was so fresh in our minds.
So where’s the video? I finally realized that if these moments were such “it” moments, I probably would forget to video them because I’d be engrossed in the moment . That’s ok- means we had an experience that cannot be recreated in video or in blog form.

We made our way to the hotel, a few blocks from the old city center. I came to Munich once- as a layover on a Pizmon Musical Outreach Mission six years ago. At the time, I found the places we visited in our short time there (mostly in the historic district) gave me the creeps. There was an eeriness to the fact that Germany recreated historic Munich for the ’72 Olympics (it had been decimated in WWII)- as if to say “lets forget what happened; we’ll rebuild and go on with our lives). Having spent a few more days in Munich, I do believe I’ve softened that sentiment to some degree. We’ll explore more of historic Munich on Tuesday.

PS- I was 1 for 1 this evening as Einstein’s (pronounced Aynshtayn) was an amazing kosher restaurant. The shnitzel/morrocan skewers/cholent/brisket clearly made up for the friday night fish dinner.








Cantors Mission to Germany Day 5

Day 5 begins with a trip outside of Berlin to two sites of major discomfort- the site of the Wannsee Conference (a gorgeous riverfront villa) and the Gleis 17 Memorial. I’m attaching a few photos for some perspective. One of the photos is a picture of a Birch tree, planted in the last year or so. The sapling was taken from Birkenau (the death camp in Poland…”birkenau” means birch). I also videoed a small section of the deportation spot to get a tiny sense of how many Jews were deported from this location.

The Wansee Papers, documenting the Nazi plan for the final solution for the “Jewish problem” are located at the villa. It’s an uncomfortable feeling reading the papers and being surrounded by hundreds of panels of information on how the Nazi regime went about their business. As I read through the panel on “who is a Jew?”(photo attached), I’m thinking of the horror that Heinrich Himler sought out- he wanted everyone and anyone affiliated with a Jew to be sent off to their death. This is a strange juxtaposition to an email I’ll receive later in the day from Rabbi Lubliner, a draft of a mission statement on Keruv for the JJC. In one case, the Nazis expanded the definition of who is a Jew in order to exterminate them. In the other, we find ways to involve more and more people in Jewish life in order to help the Jewish people grow and thrive….

In the afternoon, we travel back to the center of town to visit the Holocaust memorial. Well over 2,000 cement structures cover this enormous park in the heart of Berlin. To think how awkward/interesting this would have been had Germany won their semifinal (the final took place sunday evening, viva espana)! Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to run downstairs to the museum, where a serene place is where 6million names are read (taking years to read).

Prior to our interfaith concert at the Berliner Dom (some tracks made it to facebook), we make our way to the Neue Synagogue, whose sanctuary was destroyed in the Holocaust. As we gazed upon a photo of where the sanctuary once stood, in a hall with amazing acoustics, understanding the immense sensitivity of the moment, a group begins to sing Lewandowski’s Tzaddik Katamar (I happened to be standing in front of a picture of a young Lewandowski as well as his collection of sheet music) After getting a bit choked up, I did manage to record a few measures.

This is the power of our mission- music can transform place, time, and person. It was a special moment more than any to date on this special trip.

The site of our Interfaith Concert, the Berliner Dom, is massive.  The Dome itself is literally centimeters wider than St. Peters at the Vatican.  This magnificent concert (a link to the choir to follow) in a Lutheran church, with a public embrace of the German President and the Chair of our mission, Cantor Nate Lam, cannot be appreciated enough! While some of the dignitaries spoke in German, one leader of the Evangelical church did speak in English.  I became somewhat frustrated when he said that Germany is “good at remembering the dead, but how good are we in sharing and celebrating life?” I agree with the question to some degree, but feel that you should never assume people will remember, especially if, as he described it, people feel “forced into public routine of guilt.” This is the climax that Germany is at- to need to remember, but the yearning to move on.

Following our interfaith concert,  we make our way to the Topography of Terror Museum (there happens to be one in both Prague and Munich). It was a bit much for me to re-read many of the panels describing the rise of anti-semitism. There were even interactive exhibits where one could hear Adolf Hitler’s speeches. The thought of hearing that man’s voice in this place, gave me the creeps. I was comforted to some degree in watching the hundreds of non-Jewish visitors to this and other site who literally read every panel as if they were learning and grappling with this information for the first time. To some degree, I wanted to rush back to the Holocaust memorial to sit in a room, close my eyes and listen to the names of those lost. I’m happy to say that when I’ve become frustrated or emotional from some of what we’ve seen or discussed, I’ve found moments where i can reflect, moments when I can remember…
























Cantors Mission to Germany Day 4

A Shabbat full of music, meaning and ruach!

I had the privilege of participating in our morning Shabbat service that we entitled “Shabbos at the Ritz”. You can guess which hotel we were at! This was an opportunity for FOURTY FIVE cantors to participate in our minyan. Each cantor, as you can imagine, made their section of the liturgy uniquely theirs while bringing in new and innovative melodies. It was a chance to see what melodies and styles our own congregants responded to. The kahal was also privy to a wonderful d’rash/interactive dialgoue with the wife of one of our CA officers, Rabbi Laura Metzger. Many commented on how well the red heifer story was explained. To really understand these stories, we have to live them; we have to experience them. This had to be the most musical, most inspiring 4 hour shabbat service I’ve ever attended.

In the evening we walked to the Jewish Museum of Berlin, which happens to be the most visited museum in the entire city (and there are hundreds of museums here). Since Shabbat didn’t end until almost 10:30, we get another talk by Professor Berke plus a private tour of the museum followed by a latin flavored Melava Malka concert. Shavua tov indeed!! A few points to ponder from Professor Berke:

1) One must understand the appeal AND the the fear of communism
2) In WWI, German soldiers were convinced they could have won the war without the depression (finding both a political and economic scapegoat)
3) From WWI to 1920 to 1928, the rate of mark to dollar went from 4 to 1 to 8 to 1 to 12 to 1 to, eventually, one BILLION to one dollar. Germany’s unemployment rate was hovering around 25% (for context, spain, winner of this year’s Euro cup, suffers a similar unemployment rate).
4) Anti Semitism in the bar is one thing, but in the hands of the elites is another (fyi we’ll travel to Munich where Hitler famously used the beer halls to spread his rhetoric)

Cantors Mission to Germany Day 3

What a whirlwind of experiences and emotions these past 3 days. I’ll be posting each day’s activities and reflections in separate blog posts.

Day 3: We begin our day with the 2nd lecture by our scholar Stephen Berke. Professor Berke beautifully illustrates the timeline leading up to World War I, and will eventually tie in the years of the Nazi regime. The holocaust was not a moment without context, and German Jewry’s response to the rise of fascism must be viewed without the context of Germany’s history.

A few major points brought up by Berke:
1) Moses Mendelssohn, father of the Enlightenment and affiliated Jew, had only 4 of 56 descendants who identified as Jews by 1850 (most notably, his son Felix converted).
2) Similarly, Henirich Heiner converted to get a university position (non were offered to Jews at the time), to which he remarked “God will forgive me, it’s his job.”
3) So what was Germany like before WWI? To give context, we again think about the National Liberal Party- was it more “liberal” or more “national”? “National” meant the people wanted a constitution. Bismarck, the “blood and iron” chancellor, was the 1st conservative to play the national card by creating the 2nd Reich. For Jews, they had their bumps in the road in the late 19th century. It’s important not to romanticize, for while there were no legal restrictions for Jews in the 2nd Reich, they still had their limitations. Jews felt that anti-semitism was a vestige of the medieval period. Even in 1873, when a depression cripples the economy in large part to a Jewish financier’s ponzi scheme (sound familiar), there is no violent act against the Jewish population. They feel more German than Jewish. In 1890, they may have classified themselves as “Germans of the Mosaic personality- ours happens to be Jewish.”

4) Again, personalities- they are just as important to the historical narrative as any other factor. Often we minimize the role of the individual- saying that if Person A didn’t invent blank, Person B would have figured it out. This point, reiterated during Saturday night’s lecture, is a difficult one when we consider that if there was no Hitler, there would have been no Holocaust. To think if Hitler had been accepted into art school or had received a harsher punishment for his treasonous actions, he may not have been in a position to become Fuhrer of Germany. As Berke summed up, history is not mathematics, chemistry or physics. For as much as Germany was the pinnacle of a civilization at the turn of the 20th century, for Germans AND German Jews, as much as the 20th century may have appeared to be the century of the Germans (and not the Americans), history weaves its way in many directions because of unknown or alien forces.

This point is reiterated by our next presenter, Ms. Emily Haber, German State Secretary. Her first few minutes were heartfelt and emotional, as she put everything out on the table- no “one story for this group, another for another group”. As Germany looks to repair its image in the Jewish world, Ms. Haber pointed to individuals in government as forces of friendship. While she toed the party (or often the EU) line, Ms. Haber appeared a genuine friend of both the US and Israel (little known fact- her 50th birthday present was a trip to Israel).

Our next presenter, US Ambassador to Germany, spoke again of the friendship with Germany and its support of Israel. His ironic factoid of the morning is the fact that the Israeli Ambassador’s residence in Berlin is the former Nazi Affairs Clubhouse.

After a morning of politics we head to our day tour of the neighboring city of Potsdam. We cross the Glienicke Bridge, a famous exchange point for Soviet spies during the days of the Cold War. We visit the Cecilienhof Manor, site of the famous 1945 meeting between Truman, Churchill, and Stalin. We learn a little more about Federick the Great as we travel to the Sanssouci Palace and Gardens.

In the evening, we take over the Berlin Concert hall (a little factoid- since many of these halls/institutions were created during the Cold War, Berlin now has 3 opera houses, 2 concert halls, 2 national museums and 2 zoos- with each receiving 30% support by the government). This is chance to sing with a wonderful local choir, as well as utilize the wonderful organ. Cantors received many of the pieces beforehand to help bring the choral singing to the pews. We sang many pieces whose composers wrote specifically for the German population or were of German descent themselves. What a venue!

Services conclude close to midnight. A Shabbat Shalom- a peaceful shabbat, and what will become a Shabbat Shaleim, a complete day of rest and meaning.

















Cantors Mission to Germany Day 2

Since the mission didn’t go into full gear until the evening, this morning began with a 9:30am breakfast, where I was joined by Dan and Cindy Wohl (for context, all of our Jacksonvillians took different flights at different times, and I’m glad everyone got a few extra days in the explore other cities/countries). I had accomplished most of what I wanted to during my long walks/bus and subway trains of yesterday. One item not on our CA mission agenda was the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedachtnis Kirche, one of the most haunting symbols of Berlin. Following 7 bombing raids in 1943, the ruins of the tower were left as a memorial. This happens to be fairly close to Kurfurstendamm, a trendy area with great architecture and fun shops. One of the more trendy streets in Kurf. is Fasanenstrausse, home of the Jewish community house. Housed where the Charlottesburg synagogue once stood (destroyed on Reichskristalnacht), only the portal remains. I arrived via bus to Breitscheid Platz and could not for the life of me find the church. I finally took out my guidebook where I had a picture of the church and the surrounding buildings. Finally I realized that the modern building in front of me was actually scaffolding! The church is undergoing repairs!! The symbol, the memorial, is being prepared. I’m still digesting how I feel about it. Needless to say, 0-1. I make my way over to the Jewish house looking for Gabriel’s, a great fleisch restaurant…until this past January! 0-2!! Thank heavens for Bleiberg’s, a kosher dairy restaurant a few blocks away!

The mission begins in the late afternoon as we travel far north and east from central Berlin to a gorgeous synagogue (again, pictures to come later). Our beautiful Maariv service was preceded by our Scholar-in-Residence, Professor Stephen Berke, who points out some amazing and important anecdotes to lead us through our mission. A few to ponder:

-From 1819 to 1933, there was NO violence against the Jews in Germany. Anti-semitism yes, violence no. I always think about while people didn’t leave (and actually a large percentage of Berlin Jews did leave).

-Frankfurt 1948- an anthem used by the liberal national party, eventually picked up by the Nazi regime as their anthem (the swastika too is an adapted symbol). The anthem was originally meant as a “we are the world” anthem of the liberal agenda- but liberalism could not deliver, dooming the Jews of Germany.

Germany was home to the Third Reich, but it was also home to Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalah, Reform Judaism and some of the most important Jewish music that we still use today. I’m looking forward to taking a whirlwind tour of past, present, and future with the Cantors Assembly.








Cantors Mission to Germany Day 1

Our plane arrived from Newark an hour early, 7:30am local time Wednesday. We fly through customs and are at our hotel within the hour. Checking our bags at the hotel gives us a little time to search the local area. Our hotel is situated a block away from the Kulturforum, a museum of 13th-17th century artwork. For those Albrecht Duhrer or Rembrandt fans out there, this is a must see. A 3 day museum pass gives access to many of the main attractions throughout Berlin. Using this newly found treasure, I make my way across the square (where one could find the Berlin Philharmonic) to find a collection of 750 exhibits at the Museum of Musical Instruments (even have pictures of Frederick the Great’s harpsichord!). I’ve fought through the jetlag (watched 3 somewhat decent movies on the plane, including the movie “Footnote”) to make my way on a M200 bus through the heart of Berlin. I make my way to Museum Insel, home to many of the top museums in the country as well as the Lustgarten and Berliner Dom (the largest dome in Europe, just a few centimeters larger than the Basilica at the Vatican). As a side note, I do not find myself in away uncomfortable wearing my kippah here in Germany. When I visited Eastern Europe (primarily in high school), the thought never donned on me to wear a kippah (I was probably too obsessed with my hats anyways). While my kippah is always on wherever I am in Jacksonville, my travels often have me putting on a hat instead. Here, I feel that the kippah is not only a reminder to me of my relationship with God, but in some ways, a reminder to those around me that “yeah, I’m here.” Food for thought

After touring the Pergamon Museum (amongst others), I make the hour plus walk back to the hotel. I travel down Unter de Linden, originally a royal birdle-path linking the Stadtschloss (the king’s residence) and Tiergarten. This leads me to Brandenburg gate. For context, Germany did not become a country until the late 19th century, and Berlin as a city now encompasses smaller municipalities, amongst them Mark Brandenburg. The Brandenburg Tor (gate), built in 1789-91, has been the backdrop of many events in the city’s history. Today, The Tiergarten side was covered with Euro 2012 glitter, a backdrop to a public viewing party (as of this blog post Germany was defeated by Italy in he semifinal). Immediately to the south one finds the Holocaust memorial (more on that on friday). Like many places of the Shoah, Germany struggles to recognize what took place in the past while becoming a new, more tolerant Germany of today. My bus stop at the Philharmonic had a little blurb about 20,000 homosexuals who were sent off to their death from that very place. Germany does not hide these things- if anything it sometimes seems like too much. In viewing pamphlets from our hotel, the top 2 tours of Berlin are the “Third Reich” and “Concentration Camp” tour. To think that Brandenburg Gate may have been a place of celebration tonight right on top of the Holocaust memorial. What a strange site that would have been!

Overall it was jam packed first day in Berlin. Our mission begins officially on Thursday evening at the Synagogue Rykestrausse, restored to its original form when it was built 100 yrs ago.