New German synagogue celebrates life and history

The new center, a rectangular construction of natural stone topped with a glass box hung with nets of bronze, is open for all to see and visit.

Eight-year-old Sarah perched on a trash can, her father, Alois, holding her steady. The Catholic father and daughter observed the throng of Jews parading somewhat solemnly down the rain-dampened street. "They're carrying Torahs to the new synagogue," Alois explained as the crowd passed, chuppahs raised high, following a young boy with a lantern that contained a spark of the eternal flame. That spark soon would light the lamp in a new synagogue and community center in the heart of Munich. The Nov. 9 ceremony, attended by Jewish and political leaders and broadcast live on television, marked another liberation for the Jewish community - this time from its postwar angst, embodied by its old community center, which was hidden in a courtyard barred by gates. The new center, a rectangular construction of natural stone topped with a glass box hung with nets of bronze, is open for all to see and visit. The inaugural event competed for Germans' attention with the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom that heralded the end of centuries of Jewish life in Germany. Inside the sanctuary, some 1,000 people welcomed the Torah scrolls. As in a sukkah, the sky's changing moods played out through the lofty glass structure; only the rain stayed outside. Ohel Jakob, or Tent of Jacob, is a fitting name for the structure designed by architects Rena Wandel-Hoefer and Wolfgang Lorch. It bears the same name as a Munich synagogue burned on Kristallnacht. As long as she lives, she'll never forget that day, Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and of the Munich Jewish community, said in inaugurating the new center. "I was six years old... holding my fathers hand," looking at the blackened synagogues and shattered windows of Jewish shops, she said. "I did not understand at all. But I also understood everything," said Knobloch, who later went into hiding with a Catholic family. Now, there is a new Nov. 9 to remember. "A 68-year circle has closed," she said. A child handed Knobloch the key to the new synagogue, and she urged Munich's non-Jews to "see this as their place, too, and visit it. Discuss, laugh and argue with us." The day's celebration would not eclipse remembrance, nor would it distract from watchfulness, German President Horst Koehler said. "It's painful - painful that right-wing extremists planned an attack on the day of the laying of the cornerstone here three years ago," he said, "painful that neo-Nazis wanted to hold a march nearby" on the day of the opening. But Koehler applauded young Germans for asking tough questions about the past. He also said he rejoiced in the growth of Jewish communities in Germany: Germany has the fastest-growing Jewish community in Europe, with 120,000 members, up from 30,000 in 1990. Rabbi Steven Langnas, Munich's Orthodox rabbi, will preside over the synagogue, and said he hoped it would become a spiritual center and gathering place for the community. He asked Yisroel Diskin, Munich's Chabad rabbi, to light the eternal lamp with the spark carried from the street procession. "There are still those around the world who would deny our flame, who deny our history," said Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress. "We must maintain our vigilance." And yet to be a Jew in Germany today, "you don't have to hide. You can be proud," said Yisrael Meir Lau, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and former Israeli chief rabbi. Lau described his feelings as he helped carry the Torah scrolls through the streets. "We had for many years to hide the Torah, and today is a demonstration for the survival of Jewish identity, for Jewish immortality," he said. "People are standing outside in their windows, watching this parade of the Jewish renaissance." But Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress' Policy Council, described the new synagogue as a "test." The proof, he said, will be if the Jewish community continues to grow and thrive in Germany, if it can integrate its new Russian-speaking majority and educate a new generation. With the mezzuzahs up, the eternal flame lit and the Torahs stowed in their new ark, celebrants retired to the new ballroom for food and drink. "I'm happy that this center is here," said Irene Buchhalter, 82, a Holocaust survivor from Lemberg. But she wasn't sure it was a good idea to mix with non-Jews. The older generation still has fears, she said: When she was young, it didn't help if you fit in, and "they killed us anyway. "We're living here like in a ghetto. But the second generation is different," she said. A group of students congregated at the exit, gathering their coats and making plans. For them, the night was still young. The new center is "a great step toward normalization," said Ruth Chmiel, 21, a student born in Munich. "Everyone can see this, just like the churches." But how normal can Jewish life be in Germany when a new synagogue has to be guarded by sharpshooters? With a growing Jewish community on one hand, and signs of growing right-wing extremism on the other? Actually, it's that contrast itself that is normal. Not just Nov. 9, but on any day. "That's life," Langnas said between shaking hands and saying l'chayim. "Positive and negative, living and dying, joy and sadness, all mixed up with one another. And that's what we had today."