Trip Start Jul 03, 2011
172Trip End Jan 17, 2012
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Shana tova! Happy new year everyone! I had the pleasure of celebrating the Jewish new year with Judische Liberale Gemeinde Koln, the liberal Jewish congregation in Cologne. Finding them was easy; I just googled "synagogues in Cologne." I emailed them, asked if I could come, and received a warm email back inviting me to services and meals last night and today.
Last night services started at seven (days in the Jewish calendar start at sundown the night before, so technically last night is the same day as today), so I set out at 5:30 and leisurely walked along bike paths and through parks in Cologne in order to arrive on time. It was a nice walk and helped center me for Rosh Hashanah prayer. After services there was a kiddush and meal. I sat at a table with other young people in their twenties and played the time-honored game of "Jewish Geography," which is a fancy way of seeing if you know any of the same people. It turns out three of us had been at the same kibbutz in northern Israel at approximately the same time-- the world is smaller than we think! I sat next to someone who was not Jewish, the girlfriend of someone else at the table. We hit it off perfectly; I explained what some of the prayers meant and why we did things like drink wine or dip apples in honey, while she translated the German for me as to why we eat pomegranate seeds on this holiday. It was win-win.
This morning, I came back for more. I did not leave myself enough time to walk to services, so I wore my sneakers with my skirt (my one presentable outfit on this trip, purchased at a market in Brussels specifically for the High Holy Days) and ran. My 1.5 hour walk turned into a 45 minute run, but I made it right at 10, stopping a block away to change out of my sneakers first. Not surprisingly, German Jews are more Jewish than German in their concept of time and services didn't actually start at ten, but half an hour later. Other people spent this time schmoozing, I spent it wiping off my sweat and splashing water onto my red face.
The synagogue is inconspicuous; it is actually just a small room in the basement of a church. The only thing that gives it away is a small plaque on the door. You wouldn't even be able to find it if you didn't know what you were looking for, but I still felt comforted to see a police car detailed outside beforehand. Inside, the congregation sat in a semi-circle of chairs around the service leader and the Ark containing the Torah scrolls. Luckily for me, Stephen Fuchs (the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism) was the guest of honor and delivered the sermon. What that means is I got to hear the sermon in English (yes!). It was cool to hear half the congregation laugh when he said something funny and then moments later hear the other half of the congregation laugh once it was translated into German. He spoke briefly of his gratitude at being a free Jew in Germany and of the powerful force of the Jewish people coming together on this day in a post-Holocaust Germany. People around me held their breath as he spoke about the war and as I watched a woman sitting across from me wipe away silent tears at his words I felt the deep significance of being in this country for this Holy Day.
After services and hearing the spiritual alarm clock that is the shofar, there was another delicious meal, and I met some really amazing people from the congregation. We exchanged traveling tales and even though it was almost four and I'd told my host I would be back by this time, I couldn't tear myself away, especially when I heard we would be doing Taslich in the river Rhein. We walked as a group to the Rhein to perform this service, which involves throwing pieces of bread into a large body of water, which represents the act of casting away your sins. The sun sparkled off of the massive blue Rhein, large ships passed us by, and as people lounged on the outer banks enjoying the day, I closed my eyes and threw chunks of bread into the river.
All in all, sharing these days with this community was a beautiful experience. Like Jews the whole world over, we said goodbye many times before I was actually able to tear myself away. I couldn't have asked for a more meaningful Rosh Hashanah or a more welcoming group of people.
If you're curious, check out the congregation's website at: http://www.gescherlamassoret.de/
Also, if you would like to perform the mitzvah (good deed) of tzedakah for this community who so unhesitatingly performed the mitzvah for me of such a warm welcome on Rosh Hashanah, look in the bottom right-hand corner of their website, where it says "Pay-Pay spenden."