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Reflections from my Berlin journey; am Yisrael chai

Not too long ago, I stood at the Tiergarten public park in the center of Berlin, Germany. That’s just a short distance away from the former location of a villa where more than 60 Nazi bureaucrats worked in secret to organize the mass murder of millions. But there I was surrounded by 1,100 people celebrating an authentic Jewish wedding.

If I had not experienced this myself, I would not believe that this actually occurred.

I was in Berlin to participate in the wedding of my dear niece Chana, the eldest daughter of my older brother Rabbi Yehuda Tiechtel and his wife Leah. My brother Yehuda is the rabbi of the Berlin Jewish community and the city’s Chabad representative. 

Growing up as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, one can well understand what Germany meant to me. Images of the stories shared by my ancestors of their brutal suffering always came to mind when I envisioned cities like Berlin. To me, this was a land that represented destruction, annihilation and darkness.

But this time as I visited Berlin, my soul was uplifted by vivid images of life, joy and immortal spirit. To witness the rebirth of vibrant Jewish life in a city once dedicated to its demise is incredibly inspiring.

Over the past year as anti-Semitic incidents increasingly rose across the world, my students often ask me: “Rabbi, how do we respond to all this? Do we lower our profile? Do we humble our stature?” Again and again I reiterate that as Jews our response must be to remain proud of who we are and even increase our Jewish pride more than before. 

To suggest that Jewish people hide their identity or otherwise retreat in fear is a terrible mistake, handing a victory to those who attempt to destroy us. We need to devote ourselves to living as proud Jews with the study of Torah and performance of mitzvot with confidence and pride, demonstrating through love of our fellows and acts of kindness what it truly means to be a Jew.  

Our answer to anti-Semitism should always be to elevate Jewish pride, display our visible Jewish values and deepen our connection to our magnificent tradition. And this is what I truly felt during my recent trip to Germany. The stronger we are as a people, the greater respect the nations around the world have for the Jews. We felt this as we walked through the streets of Berlin, as we visited the nearby concentration camp and as we danced in the streets with pride.

As we spent the week in Berlin, touring the city and meeting with members of the local Jewish community, there were three words I wanted to blurt out repeatedly: “Am Yisrael chai!” Our enemies can try to eradicate us in every way but the tiny flame called the Jews will continue flickering and burning brightly.

To sit at a garden chupah in a beautiful public park that in the past was exclusively used for Nazi parties, with Jews not being allowed entry — this is am Yisrael chai!

To stand under the Brandenburg Gate, the gate that the Nazis used as a party symbol, and to hear my brother share about the menorah lighting in that spot attended proudly by thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike — this is am Yisrael chai!

To visit the Wannsee conference where the Final Solution to kill all Jews was crafted and to see the horrific language used is deeply crushing. But then to go from there to an incredible wedding where hundreds of Jews from across the world celebrate a new Jewish family, is that not am Yisrael chai?

To have the chance to observe the first class of proud 12th-graders graduate from my brother’s Jewish day school be addressed by the German minister of education is nothing but am Yisrael chai!

And to witness in the very city where Hitler declared to make Europe judenfre (free of Jews) the rebirth and expansion of a new multi-million dollar Jewish Chabad center, is that not miraculous?

We just finished observing Tisha b’Av, the days of mourning. It is a time that we mourn the destruction of our Temple and we acknowledge the beauty that has been lost. But at the same time and even more importantly, at this time we recognize that here we stand, on the threshold of a new reality. 

Whether you live in Berlin or Kansas, in a suburban community or on a college campus, each one of us has the power within ourselves to rebuild an even stronger Jewish future, ensuring that our children and grandchildren can also proclaim “am Yisrael chai”!

Rabbi Zalman Tiechtel is co-director of Chabad at KU.