Berlin's Jewish High School Teaches Tolerance to All

The Jewish High School in eastern Berlin stands in the midst of very direct reminders of the horrors of German history. Nearby, the bullet-scarred facade of a church recalls the battle for Berlin 50 years ago, and next door, a monument commemorates deportations of Jews from an old-age home on that spot and the destruction of the city's oldest Jewish cemetery.

Yet inside the school, a more hopeful future is in the making.

In bright classrooms, non-Jewish teenagers join Jewish classmates in lessons on Jewish history and culture.

Together they say a blessing before and after a kosher lunch, and attend mandatory Hebrew and Jewish religion classes along with their regular subjects. Class trips to Israel and discussions with Holocaust survivors form an integral part of the curriculum.

Jews have shared classrooms with non-Jews at Jewish schools here since reformer Moses Mendelssohn founded the first secular Jewish school in Berlin in 1788. Influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, Mendelssohn hoped to offer the Jewish community the chance to explore a world outside the confines of orthodox Judaism; thus his school not only taught secular subjects, but also accepted non-Jewish students.

Jewish education came to a brutal end when Berlin's flourishing Jewish community of nearly 200,000 was destroyed under the Nazis. Despite predictions to the contrary, Jews not only remained in Germany, but increased in number.

Learning their heritage

In 1986, concerned that a younger generation of Jewish children were growing up with no means of learning about their identity, the Jewish Community started a primary school; the high school opened seven years later in a building that had housed a successor to Mendelssohn's school before the war.

The schools continue the tradition of accepting non-Jewish students and employing non-Jewish teachers. Though Berlin's Jewish community has grown to over 10,000 in recent years with an influx of Russian Jewish immigrants, it still lacks enough children or teachers to fill a school, and the German government only subsidizes schools that accept all comers.

It's openness also reflects the school's educational philosophy. Norma Drimmer, a Jewish Community board member who oversees the schools, says that while they were founded mainly to give Jewish children a sense of their identity, the children "must be able to translate that knowledge into things important to Judaism, including tolerance and accepting other people's differences."

Thus the school aims to bring together Jewish and non-Jewish children to learn about each other's cultures. The words "tolerance" and "pluralism" come up again and again in conversation with people involved with the school, which makes it attractive to non-Jewish parents conscious of Germany's history of intolerance.

Jana Middendorf, whose son Jacob attends seventh grade at the school, explains, "I want my son to be aware that he's living in a many-layered cultural landscape. I think of Judaism as having a more democratic tradition than Germans do."

In fact, non-Jewish parents' interest in the school is often an outgrowth of their own attempts to rediscover the Jewish contribution to German culture eradicated under the Nazi regime. The school's Protestant principal Uwe Mull, whose 10-year-old daughter attends the Jewish primary school, is part of an immediate postwar generation of West Germans raised with limited knowledge of the crimes of World War II.

"Where I grew up, there was a lot of industry and a lot of concentration camps," he explains, "but no one ever really talked about what went on under the Nazis. And so I became interested - what are Jews? Where are the Jews?"

Germans of Mr. Mull's generation are as likely to idealize Jews as to be anti-Semitic, something Jews often view with equal suspicion. Anne Voss, whose son Richard is in the eighth grade at the school, says contacts with Jews in Israel first helped her shed her romanticized view of Jews for a more realistic one. "I was relieved that they were normal people," she says. Contact within the school has led to a similar demystification.

Students from abroad

The school boasts a mix not only of religions, but also of nationalities; a large number of students are Russian Jewish immigrants, and others hail from Brazil, France, England, Israel, Poland, the US, and elsewhere.

Many of the non-Jewish students come from eastern Berlin, in part because of the school's location and a perceived lack of good schools in the eastern part of the city. Yet there is also a special eagerness on the part of educated east Germans to make up for years of isolation from other cultures.

Ms. Voss says, "I always thought it was bad that children were raised so one-sidedly in East Germany and never had the chance to experience other things, other peoples.... The greater the spectrum of what he can experience, the better it is for his personality."

Like Mull, Voss is interested in Jewish culture as part of a process of coming to terms with the Nazi past.

Ms. Middendorf, too, says her son will have to face up to his heritage no matter where he goes to school: "As a German, you have to have identity problems. It's harder for a child to know he's part of a nation of perpetrators." But she wonders if going to the Jewish school will lead him to "ask different questions than if he learned history from a German perspective."

Such issues don't seem to concern the students themselves - perhaps an indicator that the school is achieving its aims.

Richard Voss admits that learning about the Holocaust at the school has made him think about Germany: "It's embarrassing to think that these are my ancestors." But as far as the relationships between students, he insists, "Once you get to know the people, you don't ask if they're Christian or Jewish."

The words 'tolerance' and 'pluralism' come up again and again in conversation, which makes it attractive to non-Jewish parents conscious of Germany's history of intolerance.

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