A Jewish education and outreach organization in Germany has come up with a provocative name – Rent-a-Jew – for its program of seminars explaining Jews and Jewish identity to non-Jewish Germans.
"We know it's questionable," Moscow-born Mascha Schmerling of the Rent-a Jew program said of the name, speaking to Deutsche Welle, the international German public broadcaster. "It's there to provoke, to promote conversation."
"We want to give people the chance to talk to the Jewish community. We want them to see that we're completely normal people," Schmerling explained. "We don't want to be defined purely by history and we don't want to always be seen through this Holocaust lens," she added.
Rent-a-Jew is a program of the European Janucz Korczak Academy, a Munich-based organization named after the legendary Holocaust-era Warsaw Jewish orphanage director, who chose to go to his death when the children in his care were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, despite the fact that he had been offered safe sanctuary.
According to the organization's website, most of the European Janucz Korczak Academy's activities, which are in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, are centered in Munich and Berlin, although they extend elsewhere in Germany and beyond, including Israel and the United States.
For his part, another Rent-a-Jew project representative, Monty Aviel Zeev Ott, told Deutsche Welle that the program seeks in part "to show an open and colorful Judaism," noting the particular importance that he saw in the program in the face of anti-Semitism.
"Ott himself was previously targeted by three men who, on noticing his kippa, surrounded him and began chanting 'Palestine,'" Deutsche Welle reported, referring to his skullcap.
"There are small parts of Berlin where I no longer wear my kippa," Ott said. "But it isn't all bad," he added. "I've have some great conversations where people have been curious enough to approach me," he said. "It's encouraging to see that people can be so open."
Reporting on a Rent-a-Jew seminar at a technical college in Solingen, near Dusseldorf and Cologne, Deutsche Welle described how the seminar unfolded:
"As the participants begin to relax, Schmerling and Ott turn the tables. 'What have you heard about Jews?' Apprehensive at first, someone answers: 'Educated.'"
"'Not always a bad thing,' Schmerling replies. 'But certainly not true for everyone.'"
"'Money,' says another, prompting a mixture of tiny gasps and uneasy laughs from the group. 'Well, it's certainly an old prejudice,' Schmerling says. 'But, unfortunately it isn't true. At least it wasn't passed on if there was any in my family,' she jokes. 'Wouldn't that be nice if you were given a bag of money if you converted,' Ott quips. 'Where do I sign?'"
"Dialogue," Schmerling told Deutsche Welle, "is key to any problem. Instead of talking about one another, we need to be talking with one another."
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