A version of this post originally appeared on the Voices of ARSP blog.
Shabbat dinners that bring together American Jewish students and young German students and interns at a local Hillel have become an annual program organized by the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) Fellow at the American Jewish Committee in Washington, DC.
ARSP was founded after World War II by the Lutheran Church in Germany. The organization sends young German volunteers on a long-term international peace service program with the goal of working toward reconciliation and peace, as well as fighting racism, discrimination, and social exclusion.
The Shabbat dinners are generously funded by the German Embassy and several German Political Foundations. They take place at different universities in the Washington metropolitan area. This year, Shabbat dinners were hosted by George Mason University in Fairfax, VA and George Washington University in Washington, DC.
Shabbat Dinners are providing the opportunity for cultural exchange and are promoting mutual understanding. Shabbat Dinners are resolving concerns and prejudices against the other culture.
On February 6, 2015, first German-Jewish Shabbat Dinner of the AJC and ARSP took place at the George Washington University, and was supported by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The evening was a celebration of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, and more than 70 Jewish students and young German professionals participated. The evening began with Shabbat services organized by Hillel. During the service, Jewish students explained the traditions and rituals. Reform, conservative and meditation services were held.
"I was really moved. It was the first time that I ever attended a Jewish service," said one of the German interns who had arrived in Washington only two weeks prior. After the service, the audience gathered for dinner, and one of the Jewish students recited the blessings over wine and bread. A number of the Jewish students had families who had escaped from Germany during the Third Reich and were interested in learning about modern Germany. "I would like to go to Berlin and see where my grandmother once lived," said one of the students. Germany Close Up alumni also attended the event and spoke about their experiences encountering Germany on their study trips.
About 40 students gathered for the German-Jewish Shabbat Dinner at George Mason University on February 20, sponsored by the German Embassy to the United States. For the past three years, George Mason Hillel, the German Embassy and ARSP have held Shabbat dinners together at GMU.
Charlotte von Friedeburg, first secretary of the German Embassy, addressed the crowd. Before the meal, students organized themselves in smaller groups for an Ask Big Questions session about a commencement speech by Stephen Colbert.
According to Ross Diamond, Executive Director of Mason Hillel, “The opportunity to engage in conversation about our common values allowed a unique experience. The Ask Big Questions format empowered us to learn from each other’s innate wisdom. While the Holocaust is an important part of our entangled history, it is not the only reason for Jews and Germans to be in dialogue today.”
Participant Natalie Rosenfeld, a Germany Close up alumna, shared her experiences from her trip to Germany last summer. “The grandpa of one from our group left Germany during the Third Reich. On one day in Berlin we went to the house were his grandpa was raised. We rang the bell and told the current property owner his story. They led us in and showed us the house. It was very moving to see what this meant for him, his grandchild.”
During and after the dinner, participants had the opportunity to get to know each other and to discuss the speeches and share opinions about current events.
We are excited to close our Greater Washington Hillels German Jewish Dialogue Shabbat tour at American University on April 17th. We will be engaging with the student community and speaking about Anti-Semitism in Europe. We believe this topic must be discussed to proactively address this reoccurring issue. What better forum for conversation is there than a Hillel Shabbat dinner between Jewish students and Germans?
Simon Schwesig is the German Action Reconciliation Service for Peace fellow at the Washington, DC American Jewish Committee in the Office of Government and International Affairs. Pictured (from top): Simon Schwesig in Washington, DC and Charlotte von Friedeburg addresses the crowd at George Mason University