Orthodox Life Blossoms in Berlin

Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, September 30, 2016

Melave Malka - post-Shabbat celebration
Melave Malka – post-Shabbat celebration

A few years ago, Yael Merlini wasn’t sure she and her family could stay in Germany. Her children, ages 7, 11 and 15, were the only Jews in their school in Giessen, a town near Frankfurt. The Jewish population numbered fewer than 400, mostly elderly Russian Jews. She also experienced anti-Semitism in the form of social slights from colleagues she described as “liberal” Germans.

“Our first thought was to go to Israel,” the Italian-born Merlini said in an interview in Hebrew over the phone in Berlin, where she and her family settled a few weeks ago. “But in Israel, with our professions, it’s very hard.” Her German-born husband is an academic; originally from Florence, she’s a teacher. Both had lived in Israel for 10 years, where they met, and together converted to Judaism.

I first met Merlini, visibly Orthodox with her tichl (religious headscarf), at the Orthodox Shabbat minyan held in the historic Rykestrasse Synagogue in the upwardly mobile neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, in former East Berlin. Having survived Kristallnacht, the synagogue today serves as the campus for the Lauder Beth-Zion Elementary School, while its ornate main sanctuary offers a more Reform Shabbat service, equipped with a microphone.

At the morning kiddush, as children played and congregants vied for the meat cholent, Merlini effused how members of Kehillat Adass Jisroel (KAJ) community cooked kosher meals for them upon their arrival, helped them find an apartment and came to their rescue when their car broke down. KAJ was officially incorporated in 2013, named for the Orthodox community that once thrived in Berlin. Today’s KAJ has 75 member families.

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