Young, Jewish and queer
Helene Shani Braun is in the process of becoming Germany’s youngest rabbi. We asked her about her visions of the future.
Helene Shani Braun sits on the balcony of her Berlin apartment wearing a necklace with the inscription “LOVE” in which the O has been replaced by a silver Star of David. The 24-year-old future rabbi is many things: young, Jewish, female, queer and above all unconventional.
Ms Braun, why do you want to become a rabbi?
A few years ago I went to a conference in America organised by the umbrella organisation World Union for Progressive Judaism. All the participants were wearing name tags, and some of the young women’s badges said their occupation was “rabbi”. That fascinated me so much I talked to them. I found it a very exciting area of work. I already enjoyed going to the Jewish community when I was a child and always thought the rabbis there were cool. They know so much; you can ask them anything. In recent years then the idea grew steadily stronger that it was the kind of work I wanted to do.
How do you become a rabbi?
Since 2018 I’ve been at Abraham Geiger College where I’m training to be a rabbi. The study programme is divided into two parts: I’m studying Jewish theology at the University of Potsdam and completing a practical training at the college. There we learn, for example, how you lead worship and prepare for religious holidays. One key area, however, is also pastoral care. As a rabbi you follow people through their lives – from birth to death. You are an important contact person in crises or before important decisions and you need a lot of preparation and experience for that.
What do you regard as your most important task?
I want to help shape how Judaism looks in the future and campaign for increased visibility. Many people have no points of contact with Jewish people in their social circle, but nonetheless this religion is also here in Germany. It is lived and must be seen.
Why do young people often stay away from their communities?
I believe there are two reasons for this: first, there are nowhere near as many synagogues as churches in Germany. If you live in a village, you’ll be lucky to find a synagogue at all in the immediate vicinity. And if you then go there and there’s no one of your own age, you’re not likely to go back again. Second, many topics that concern young people are not discussed enough in communities: feminism, LGBTQ rights and so on. I was lucky: in my community in Hanover there was a youth centre with a cool programme and young youth leaders. We must create more of these kinds of offerings.
How do you attempt to reach out to young people?
There are many ways of doing that – via Instagram, for example. I simply try to talk to as many young people as possible to find out what communities lack to make them feel at home. I often also speak about my queerness and want to convey the idea that there’s room for this in communities.
You are a founding member of the Keshet Deutschland initiative, an important point of contact for queer young Jews. What goals are you pursuing there?
I want to make it clear that no one has to decide between their Jewishness and their queer identity. We don’t want to create Jewish LGBTQ communities, but make sure that queerness becomes a perfectly natural part of existing communities. At first our initiative concentrated mainly on Berlin, but now there are many regional groups represented all over Germany that plan their own events.
You said you were inspired by a conference in America. How important to you is international exchange with other rabbis?
I believe that exchange is always important – no matter whether it is with other Jews, other religions, Germany-wide or globally. Actually the Jewish world is very well networked through precisely these umbrella organisations. I get to hear a lot from Australia or the USA, Europe and Israel. Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve often had the opportunity to take part in digital services at the other end of the world. But I’m also looking forward to being able to travel to conferences again where I can meet new people and study, celebrate and eat with them.
One last question: what must a rabbi – of whatever age – definitely have?
Openness. Openness towards what they have learned, openness towards people and above all openness towards new ideas.