Rabbi finds spiritual elevation in trip to Germany
by Tamara Stokes
Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen never wanted to go to Germany. Why would a second-generation Holocaust survivor voluntarily visit a place that, just 70 years ago, aggressively sought the annihilation of his entire race?
When asked to participate with the Bridge of Understanding, an education and exchange consortium in Berlin, the Congregation Tiferet Israel rabbi said he had to "think" about the offer.
"I never wanted to step foot on land soaked in the blood of my grandparents, 15 aunts, uncles and 11 first cousins," he says. "This was a cursed land, in my opinion.
"[But] I began to see it as a mitzvah mission," says Cohen. "I think I was able to speak on behalf of my murdered relatives," says Cohen.
Cohen returned from Germany last week, one of 11 rabbis on a Feb. 26-March 6 mission financed by the country's Ministry of Economic Affairs and European Program funds.
Out of 48 students in one class, only two indicated they had ever met a Jew. Yet, they students knew history and knew about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
An e-mail from one of the students says, "We learned plenty from you and I hope you learned something from us. Our intention was mainly to show you that Germans aren't bad folks É you can maybe tell your community they are highly welcome in Berlin."
Cohen was thrilled to lead Shabbat services at the Joachimstaller Strassue Shul. "Imagine, me, conducting Shabbat services there," says Cohen, noting the day also marked the anniversary of his great-grandfather's death.
Fellow mission participant Rabbi Paula Mack Drill of the Orangetown Jewish Center in New York described his connection with the children. "He told the kids the story of Akiva; love others as you love yourself É. Yitzchak told them he saw the hope of the future in their faces. I watched them drink his words. I saw them respond to a holy person telling them they can make a beautiful future."
There were negative aspects to the trip. The Jewish Week in New York reported the Americans were warned repeatedly not to identify themselves in public as Jews. Recently, the German government granted the same legal status as the Protestant and Catholic communities to the Jewish community.
Cohen says when a fellow rabbi "tells you to take off your yarmulke, it puts the danger in perspective," indicating the environment was volatile and reminiscent of the dangers Jews historically faced in Germany.
The visit left Cohen spiritually elevated. "I felt I was their messenger and able to ask them, 'Why?' Could you even conceive this could happen? I told them about love and not prejudice. They should use this [love] as their greatest tool.
"As we talked about the Shoa," says Cohen, "I saw the tears run down their cheeks. "If I did nothing more while I was there, that honest experience [with the students'] coming away with many emotions was worth it."
This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Thursday, March 13, 2003