Berlin shul marks 100 years with hopes of being rediscovered

berlin | When he was a small boy, Hermann Simon learned a secret: The sound of the shofar shaking the chandeliers of the Rykestrasse Synagogue was actually piped in through a tiny grate in the floor under the pews. A friend told him so.

“And I believed it — a bit,” said Simon, 55, a historian and director of the Foundation for the Neue Synagogue Berlin-Centrum Judaicum, the central archive of Germany’s Jewish community.

Today, he knows better.

Simon’s new book about the synagogue — due out before the New Year — marks the 100th anniversary of the synagogue, the largest to have survived the Nazi years. It served the Jewish community of East Berlin during the Cold War and this year will welcome some 600 worshipers for the High Holidays.

In hopes of attracting attention to this magnificent, imposing synagogue with its Moorish and Romanesque detail — and maybe even drawing more Jews from the former West Berlin to attend services here — the Jewish community is holding a jubilee ceremony on Sunday, Sept. 12, complete with cantorial performances, addresses by Berlin public officials and a benediction by Rabbi Ernst Stein.

In addition, 500 copies of Simon’s book, “Die Synagogue Rykestrasse: 1904-2004,” will be given to local schools in order to raise awareness and to urge more Jews to attend services at the shul.

“Until today, the West Berlin community has not accepted this synagogue so much,” Albert Meyer, president of the Berlin Jewish community, said at a recent news conference at the synagogue.

In part, the conflict has to do with congregational minhagim, or traditions. Though the current congregation is traditional, with men and women sitting separately, Meyer said he’d like to see the renewal of German liberal Judaism at Rykestrasse, a dream that Simon privately shrugged off. “I can’t imagine it,” he said.

Despite such differences, the two share the hope that the public — both Jewish and non-Jewish Germans — will come to appreciate the jewel in its midst.

On Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis burned and looted synagogues across Germany and Austria, the fire department protected the synagogue because of the danger that any fire might spread to neighboring non-Jewish property.

The congregation continued to meet at the shul until April 1940, when the Nazi army moved in and used it as a stable and storage space. But — inexplicably, said Simon — the Nazis protected the structure, down to its brass fixtures and eternal lamp. Elsewhere, metal was scavenged ruthlessly for the war effort.

Today, it is easy for the uninformed to miss the Rykestrasse Synagogue, tucked away in a courtyard behind a former yeshiva that now houses the Ronald S. Lauder Judisches Lehrhaus, which includes a teacher resource center, an adult education institute and a yeshiva.

One must peer through a wrought iron gate, past the yeshiva, across the courtyard to see the redbrick facade of the shul, completed in 1904 according to the design of architect and master builder Johann Hoeniger.

The main sanctuary, now used almost exclusively on the High Holidays, originally held 2,000 worshipers. Services were a mix of traditional with modern, by early 20th century standards. Men and women sat together.

After the Nazis came to power, the synagogue became a place where Berlin Jews could gather for cultural programs, seeking respite from discrimination in the workplace, schools and on the street.

By the end of the war, only a handful of Berlin’s prewar Jewish population of about 170,000 had survived. Of some 7,000 Jews who stayed in Berlin after the war, about 1,500 were in the eastern sector.

The first postwar services took place in a small chapel at the shul, on July 13, 1945, according to Simon’s book. In 1953, the main sanctuary was rededicated and it became, writes Simon, “the religious centerpiece of the small East Berlin Jewish community.”

In the 1950s, many East German Jews fled to the west. By the 1980s, there were only about 200 Jews left in East Berlin. When Germany was unified in 1990, the Jewish communities of East and West Berlin, too, united. The city’s Jewish population has tripled since then, with the influx of former Soviet Jews. Even so, only about 30 people regularly attend Shabbat services, said Simon.

“It’s OK,” he said, “But if you compare it to 1935, it feels empty.”

On a recent rainy morning, the doors to the dark sanctuary were opened and the main chandeliers turned on, their light reflecting warmly against the white walls and ceiling. The grayish day was bright enough to illuminate the lower windows, on which are etched — in German and Hebrew — the first passages of Genesis. Someone flicked another switch and the menorahs on the dais gleamed, their bulbs ablaze.

“Coming here as a boy,” Simon said, “I did not feel cut off from the rest of the Jewish world. I felt part of the Jewish world. Because it was Yom Kippur everywhere.’

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.