A Synagogue Renovation in Berlin, and the Palestinian Making It Happen

Palestinian-German politician Raed Saleh is overseeing the transformation of a synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht into a hub of Jewish life

Nina Peretz and Raed Salah outside the synagogue last month.
Boaz Arad

Many worshippers gathered at the Fraenkelufer Synagogue in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood on a recent Shabbat evening. Secular and religiously-observant Jews alike crowded the room, sang hymns and conversed in many languages – Hebrew and German among them, but also Spanish, Russian and Italian. The attendees didn't want to part with the place's ambiance, and stuck around until the police and guards’ shifts had ended, only then going home.

In recent years the small synagogue on the colorful Landwehr Canal has become a home to a Jewish community that has quickly grown. A large and luxurious synagogue once stood at the same site, with room for 2,000 worshippers. That building was set on fire on Kristallnacht, and only a side wing survived.

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With the help of the chairman off Berlin’s Social Democratic Party, Raed Saleh, a new building will be built as a cultural center for the Jewish community in Berlin. Saleh, a German of Palestinian origin, heads the trustees spearheading the building’s renovations.

The initial plans call for a new building to go up next to the renovated structure for a kindergarten, kosher café, concert hall, library and shared workspace. The room for religious study planned for the site will be open to all streams of Judaism.

A model of the synagogue after the restoration
Kilian Enders / D/FORM architect

Nina Peretz, 35, heads the organizing association. “There are many new Jewish initiatives in Berlin, klezmer concerts, kosher restaurants and Jewish art –but many off these initiatives have no available venues,” she said.

“We want to invited artists and creators and entrepreneurs and unite them into a single world,” she said.

While Peretz grew up in Germany, her husband, Dekel Peretz, 39, moved to Berlin from Israel 16 years ago. “With the immigration of many Israelis and other groups of Jews who speak Hebrew to Berlin, there’s a feeling of pioneering Hebrew culture in the city. We see not only the rebuilding of a synagogue but of a large and independent Jewish congregation in Berlin.”

Fraenkelufer is one of 12 active synagogues today in Berlin. But it’s the first time that any synagogue destroyed by the Nazis is being rebuilt. The Jewish community in Berlin, estimated at 40,000 people, grew quickly in the past decade. The rise isn't solely due to Israeli immigration; Berlin also attracts Jews from the United States, South America, Hungary and elsewhere.

Not too long ago, Kreuzberg was far from being a focal point for Jewish life in Berlin. Its proximity to the Berlin Wall during the Cold War which made it the second poorest district of the city’s western side. After the wall came down, the area became a cultural center and a magnet for students, artists and young families, who moved in alongside immigrants from Turkey who had arrived in the 1960s and 1970s. The relatively low rents and creative atmosphere attracted many Israelis and Jews as well.

Despite this, the Fraenkelufer synagogue was at risk of being shut down six years ago after the numbers of its congregants sunk to a point where there was sometimes no minyan for prayer. A group of volunteers, among them the Peretz couple, swung into action to revive the congregation. They held joint meals there, volunteering days and activities for children, and weekly lessons led by attendees.

Dekel said “we started to conduct activities that would permit wide circles of people to connect with their Jewish identity and the Jewish community, even if they weren't interested in participating in prayers.”

As the community expanded, the synagogue needed to expand with it. The land there is owned by the State of Berlin, so the Peretzes looked for local politicians who might show an interest in the project. They knew Saleh from other social initiatives, and when they presented him with the idea, Dekel recalls, “He listened and said nothing. But he listened. A few months later he got in touch and said ‘what do you think of rebuilding the synagogue that was destroyed?’”

From the outset it was clear that the community had no need for 2,000 seats in the synagogue's prayer space, but, says Nina, “what we do need is a community center, a place for activities, events, and meetings. Worship is an important part of Judaism but there are many other things that are a part of it as well.”

Fraenkelufer was built from 1913-1916 in a neo-classical style designed by Jewish architect Alexander Barr who died in Thereisenstadt in 1944. It was one of the largest Orthodox synagogues in Berlin before most of was destroyed in 1938. Like many others across Europe, the synagogue is protected by a security barrier and guards. Visitors must coordinate their visits ahead of time.

But the Peretzes hope it will be more accessible to the non-Jewish public. “We want any person passing down the street and spotting a café or exhibit to be able to walk in without thinking twice,” Nina Peretz said. “Judaism shouldn’t be something that is only practiced behind closed doors.”

Saleh, 41, was born in the West Bank town of Sebastiya and his family moved to Germany when he was five. He’s one of the Social Democrats’ youngest and most promising politicians, and ran for mayor in 2014. He has also been involved in interfaith dialogue and sees the synagogue’s renovation as a clear statement against a rise in anti-Semitism in Germany and against racism and hatred of foreigners, which the Muslim community suffers from as well.

“The 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht passed recently, and I ask myself what we've learned from history,” Saleh told Haaretz. “People are once again being attacked because of their faith or their opinions.”

In an interview at his office in the Spandau quarter, Saleh expressed concern about the growing strength of the AfD (Alternative for Germany Party), a far—right party whose representatives now sit in all 16 of the country's 16 local parliaments. He cautioned that “history is quickly forgotten and that’s dangerous, but a synagogue built of stone will live on. It’s like a book that tells stories and evokes history.”

In recent years Germany has been rebuilding historic edifices destroyed in the Second World War and the Communist era. Many are identified with the German empire or the country’s militaristic past. A year ago Saleh had an article published in the Frankfurther Algemeine Zeitung in which he wrote that “a country that rebuilds palaces and churches must also rebuild its synagogues.”

Saleh said that rebuilding the Fraenkelufer synagogue in the midst of a neighborhood where many immigrants live will remind German society that it has always been comprised of diverse religions and cultures.

“We are not asking to erase what happened from 1933 to 1945, but to show that Judaism has always been a part of German identity,” he said. “It’s important to do this today, especially in such a culturally and ethnically diverse place as Fraenkelufer,” Saleh said.

Saleh recognizes the fact that anti-Semitism in Berlin, which has been on the rise in recent years, also exists among the city’s immigrants, but warns that “Jews and Muslims in Germany must not be drawn into mutual divisions.” Saleh feels that both communities “are in the same boat” in confronting the far right.

As someone who sees education and interfaith meetings as vehicles to bring communities closer and to fight prejudices, he leads tours for Muslim and Arab youth of Auschwitz death camp. “I wouldn’t be a good Muslim if I didn’t fight for the Jews, exactly like how a Jew is not a good Jew if he stands on the sidelines when someone removes a Muslim woman's headscarf.”