Rebuilding Jewish Life in Dresden


October 18, 2002

DRESDEN, GERMANY--The elderly man expressed interest in receiving Chabad’s new weekly update, providing that its cover won’t display anything too Jewish. It wasn’t a good idea, he felt, for his neighbors to know that he is a Jew. So when Rabbi Shneur Zalman Havlin ticked off “Judaism” as the religious identity of his newborn son at a government registration agency, his openness was met with surprise. Jews here don’t volunteer that information. A former hotbed of Anti-Semitism, first under Nazi and then communist rule, Saxony, East Germany, is now home to 5,000 Jewish families, where old fears die hard.

The desire to keep a low Jewish profile, so prevalent among the Jewish population here creates a challenge for Rabbi Havlin and his wife Chanie, Chabad’s new representatives to the state who settled in Dresden with their children this past March. The Havlins are working the Jewish community with sensitivity, opening their home to create smaller, and more intimate settings in which to conduct Jewish functions: the Havlin’s living room converts into a synagogue—the first traditional one in Dresden in over half a century—where fifty people regularly attend Shabbat services and kiddushim. As well, they’ve adapted their home to include a lecture hall, classroom, and a meeting place for members of the local community.

Of the 6,000 Jews living in Dresden before the War, only 60 remained. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and an influx of Russian Jews to the area, the Jewish population here has since doubled. But half a century of bans on religious practice left little in the way of Jewish communal religious life, and only three weeks after their arrival here, the Havlins weren’t sure what kind of turnout to expect at their Passover seders. To their surprise, fifty people showed up, and it wouldn’t take long before they would establish contact with 400 local Jewish families.

Slowly but surely, a Jewish pride is emerging. Eighty people celebrated joyfully at a Lag B’omer bonfire and barbecue, despite the scare of a Neo-Nazi event scheduled to take place the next day, and fifty people joined Chabad for a Shavuot ice cream party. Now, says Rabbi Havlin, the community seems ready for a public Chanukah menorah lighting ceremony, to take place in the center of town this Chanukah. Children here will get to make their own olive oil in Chabad’s trademark Chanukah olive press that will be set up at the local JCC, where they’ll explore all the holiday rituals through hands-on activities.

The city has recently approved the founding of a Jewish nursery school, scheduled to begin next fall, and permission to move into the old synagogue building is pending approval.

Given the ominous history of this place, says Rabbi Havlin,“every time a Jewish child identifies Jewishly, every time a Jewish adult makes another effort to study Torah or participate at a Jewish function, it is a development worth celebrating.”

Reported by S. Olidort

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