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From Sophie to Shtisel

At “Meet a Jew”, those interested can ask Jewish people questions about their life in Germany, their religion and their culture.

Sarah Cohen Fantl, 10.09.2021
At “Meet a Jew” people talk to each other, not about each other.
At “Meet a Jew” people talk to each other, not about each other. © Sarah Cohen Fantl

Kippah, sidelocks and a long beard – for many, these are their first associations with the word “Jew”. Then there are also keywords such as “Israel” and “religion”. For many people in Germany, there are thought to be few points of contact with Jewish life in their daily routine. This is exactly where “Meet a Jew”, the encounter project of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, funded by “Live Democracy!”, a program of the Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Children, comes in. The goal: to create personal encounters and exchanges between Jews and non-Jews in order to make the multifaceted Jewish life in Germany more visible.

At one of the more than 300 meetings in 2021 – vis-à-vis and also online owing to the coronavirus restrictions – the Jewish women Sophie and Franzi take questions from the participants, on this evening members of the St. John Youth Group, the youth association of the St. John Accident Assistance. The group leader, Runa, came across the initiative through a podcast and was immediately interested: “We know about Jews from school lessons in connection with the Holocaust, but we don’t know much about modern Judaism”. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is still a big issue in society, she says, and it is important to be aware of it.

Nipping stereotypes in the bud

In order to break the ice, all the participants introduce themselves briefly and are asked to talk about their first association with the word “Judaism”, which Sophie and Franzi then take up from a personal perspective. This results in dozens of questions, which are asked off and on with a subliminal shyness but are rewarded with open answers. At the beginning Mascha Schmerling, one of the three project coordinators of “Meet a Jew”, mentioned an important rule for the conversation: “You can ask anything”. This is important, she says, so that she can clear up any prejudices and comment on them. “Nobody is born with prejudices, so it’s important to nip nascent stereotypes in the bud. That’s why we meet with school classes, companies and sports clubs”, she explains.

Important at the meetings: there are always two people to talk to from “Meet a Jew” who are trained to answer questions on Judaism about holidays and rules, but who also talk about their individual Jewish lives from a personal perspective. “It’s important for us to make clear that not all Jews are the same and that not all Jews are religious either”, says Schmerling.

Conveying the broad spectrum of Judaism

That is also the case at this meeting: Sophie grew up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father, celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas and has little relation to religion in everyday life. Franzi, on the other hand, has Jewish ancestors and converted as an adult. She lives a modern religious life with kosher food and visits to synagogues on Shabbat. This contrast and this diversity arouse the interest of the youth group. They ask about kosher food, whether one can quit Judaism or be half-Jewish, which traditions Jews live by, and want to know more about the IIsraeli series Shtisel, which revolves around ultra-orthodox Judaism. “I’m somewhere between Shtisel and Sophie”, says Franzi, putting her finger on the broad spectrum of Judaism.

I want to contribute to a more tolerant society.
Sophie from "Meet a Jew“

The large elephant in the room is not addressed directly until one of the group asks the question that never fails at any meeting: “Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?” Franzi and Sophie’s reply: Yes. Sophie says: “Most Jews have experienced anti-Semitism at some point. In childhood, it’s suggested to many that they’re ‘different’, which is why it’s so important to teach children and young people to be open and to show solidarity with those affected.” This is also an incentive for the two of them to take part in “Meet a Jew”: “I want to show that there is Jewish life all over Germany”, says Franzi. And Sophie: "I want to contribute to a more tolerant society and break down the abstract image associated with the word ‘Jew’”.

After almost two hours, the youth group leader Runa is enthusiastic: “I had great expectations of this encounter and they’ve even been exceeded. I hope that other leaders will also initiate such meetings with their youth groups.” The other participants are also pleasantly surprised: “I had no idea how diverse Jewish life is and I got some really great insights”, says Marie. And participant Pauline adds: “I knew little about Judaism, but this meeting gave me the opportunity to ask all my questions and satisfy my curiosity”.