Lighting the menorah in Berlin

By Larry Gordon

Last year’s Chanukah miracle was the release from prison of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin on the last day of the chag. It was an event that electrified the Chabad community and took Chanukah celebrations to new heights, with unbridled singing and dancing through the night in a dual festival of sorts.

The release of Mr. Rubashkin was one man’s triumph as well as a victory for the overall community, as his excessive 27-year sentence for financial offenses was widely considered extreme and an errant judicial attempt to target the Jewish community.

This year’s miracle took place at the start of the holiday and began with something once thought unimaginable if not absolutely impossible. It took place in Berlin, Germany, once the seat of energized anti-Jewishness to an extent previously unseen in the annals of history, even through the dark periods of pogroms and inquisitions.

Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal is the head emissary, or shliach, of Chabad in Berlin. The rabbi has resided in this key German city for 22 years. He says that when he moved to Germany there were about 10,000 Jewish residents in the area. Today there are 50,000 Jewish residents living in Berlin. They arrive in Berlin from different parts of Germany, Russia, other areas of Eastern Europe, and Israel.

Aside from his duties with Chabad, Rabbi Teichtal is the chief rabbi of Berlin. In September the rabbi was contacted by the office of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, asking about the 80th anniversary of Kristalnacht and what the rabbi thought might be the most meaningful way for Germany to observe the tragedy this year.

According to details online, Rabbi Teichtal, in his meeting with the president, related the instructions to the shluchim of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that challenges his representatives with the task of dispelling darkness in the world with the light that is Jewish life and the ways of Torah. There was perhaps no greater darkness in the history of the world than right there in World War II Germany.

The suggestion for Chanukah was a big one — to erect a 30-foot menorah at Brandenburg Gate, the site of the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany during the Communist era. It was the location of Adolf Hitler’s most fiery hate-filled speeches that rallied a military that became executioners of six million Jews.

But Hitler and communism are now gone. The havoc they created and left in their wake is still dissipating all these decades later. The antisemitism that festers beneath the surface in the 21st century is undeniable. Perhaps that is why the idea of lighting a Chanukah menorah at this historical site was considered brazen, even daring.

In a conversation on Monday with the 5TJT, Rabbi Teichtal said he was momentarily taken aback when President Steinmeier not only agreed to the plan, but suggested that he, the president, light the first candle on the first night of the chag this past Sunday night.

But the story does not end happily at that point. Rabbi Teichtal says that until late last Friday, the Sunday-night lighting of the larger-than-life menorah was in jeopardy. “Over the few weeks leading up to Chanukah,” Rabbi Teichtal told us, “local government officials in Berlin tried every which way to see to it that the menorah lighting would not take place.”

He said that at times he was a bit discouraged but always confident that he would be led on the direct path to do what was right. Germany is a huge country with a population of 83 million people. The president of the country may want to be present at a largely symbolic gesture of friendship to his Jewish community, but that does not mean that officials at the local level will not try to thwart the effort, and that is exactly what happened.

In Germany, when there is an effort afoot to undermine a relatively simple gesture like lighting a menorah in a public area, it is not all that simple; indeed, it’s jam packed with strong and sometimes even extreme feelings. It’s not like a menorah lighting in Canada or Mexico, where you can be assured there are such ceremonies that are just routine and uneventful and not reported in the news. Germany is quite a different story.

The rabbi said that as the date approached, local officials and even police became involved, trying to subtly get the Chabad group to cancel the menorah-lighting at Brandenburg Gate. Rabbi Teichtal, who oversees numerous Chabad houses in Germany, said Chabad has 25 other menorah lightings around the country, so it is not exactly a new project or idea.

Rabbi Teichtal wrote a letter to be placed on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave in Queens last week. He believes that he received a response when the objections from various directions and the pressure to cancel just faded away. On Sunday night, the president of Germany lit the torch that would be used to light the menorah on each night of the week.

“It was emotional, powerful, and inspiring,” Rabbi Teichtal said about the Sunday-night lighting. A place of deep and abiding darkness was finally illuminated all these years later with the light of the Chanukah menorah.

Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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