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"Meet a Jew"

Apart from the hushed scribbling of pens on paper, silence filled an airy third-floor classroom at Sophie Scholl School on a recent afternoon in Berlin. One by one, two dozen eighth graders folded their sheets and coyly passed them along to the front of the class, where a pair of visitors sitting at a desk gathered them into a pile.

A young woman named Liora in a pale-gray sweater, large-rimmed glasses, and a silver Star of David necklace picked up the first shred and read it out loud: “Do people treat you differently as soon as they find out that you are a Jew?”

The 23-year-old, who is studying biology at college in the German capital, sat back, breathed deeply, and nodded. “One time at a party, I was wearing my Star of David chain, but you couldn’t see it because it was behind my sweater,” she recalled. “Then a boy came over and hugged me. And when he hugged me, it fell out.”

She paused, and the students leaned forward. “ ‘Hey, are you Jewish?,’ he asked me,” she went on. “ ‘Oh my God, at home I was taught to hate Jews. But you look so good. Huh.’ That was the biggest turn-off I’ve ever had in my life.”

This was not the usual weekly ethics class for these students. Instead, it was part of a program called “Meet a Jew.” Introduced by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, it seeks to introduce Jews to non-Jewish people at events like these throughout Germany, from Munich to Frankfurt and Leipzig, with the aim to humanize Jews amid years of rising antisemitic violence in the country.

“It is really important to be visible to achieve the goal of normalcy, so Jewish people aren’t perceived as something unknown or foreign,” Mascha Schmerling, Meet a Jew’s project coordinator, told me. “Being Jewish and German is not a contradiction. We want to show the variety of Jewish life.”

Through the program, 350 volunteers have been visiting schools, universities, sports clubs, churches, and mosques to talk about themselves and field questions about Jewish life in Germany in a freewheeling, ask-me-anything style.

The questions can be straightforward: Do you celebrate New Year’s Eve? (“Not really.”) Do you wear a kippah? (“Only men do.”) Have you ever been to a church? (“Yes, they’re beautiful.”) Do you speak Israeli? (“Hebrew is the language spoken in Israel.”)

They can also be perplexing and intense: Can you be gay or lesbian and Jewish? (“Of course.”) Was your family involved in the Holocaust? Why is Israel attacking Palestine? (Answers vary.)

Some volunteers are devout; others are secular. Their opinions on Israel differ. But all, crucially, consider themselves German. The idea is that meeting Jewish people face to face helps prevent and debunk stereotypes and form personal, powerful experiences in the real world.

The stakes are high. Antisemitic crimes in Germany have been on the rise for several years, including incidents like the Halle shooting in 2019. In the pandemic, antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and disease have been peddled by anti-vaxxers. And a study in 2019 found that more than a quarter of Germans hold antisemitic views themselves (“Jews talk about the Holocaust too much,” 41 percent agreed; Jews have “too much power” over the economy and the media in Germany, more than 20 percent concurred).

“The worrisome thing is that the cultural and political forces pushing antisemitism could become stronger,” said Alex Sagan, a professor at Harvard specializing in the experience of Jews in modern Europe. While the far-right Alternative for Germany party’s vote share fell in September’s elections, it still holds 11 percent of the Bundestag.

And the problem runs deep. While Germany has an important culture of remembrance, the focus on darker chapters of the Jewish community’s history can hinder attempts by the 200,000 Jews currently living in Germany to define themselves in the present.

“Coming to terms with the past is taken very seriously in Germany,” Sagan said. “But although there is very widespread education about the Nazi period and the Holocaust, it’s not always the case that that education does a good job of giving people a sense of what normal Jewish life is like.”

Indeed, even though studying the Holocaust is a mandatory part of Germany’s curriculum, and schoolkids regularly go on visits to former concentration camps, most Germans have never personally interacted with Jews. According to one recent study, nearly half of the population has never met a Jewish person.

“When Jews are repeatedly being presented to you as victims, that’s a problem,” Sagan said. “One thing that is appealing about Meet a Jew is that these are encounters between people who are locals and who live in Germany. It provides an interesting basis for commonality and empathy. That kind of work is important.”

Still, questions linger about how much the program can really do to overcome the larger forces in Germany. “A big challenge for a program like this is scale, for it to have a real impact, you need to hold a lot of events,” Sagan said. Meet a Jew can only reach so many.

But Schmerling noted that in 2020, 230 Meet a Jew sessions were held. That figure nearly doubled in 2021, with another 540 completed. Virtual meetups have been held when pandemic-related restrictions have applied to physical gatherings. Next year, Meet a Jew is looking to expand its range of formats to include podcasts, video, “and maybe even TikTok,” Schmerling said. “It’s still a work in progress, but that’s where our target groups are.”

For now, back in the classroom at Sophie Scholl School, after showing initial signs of shyness, the students grew in confidence, and they soon began to come to terms with the idea that Liora, and indeed any other Jew, is pretty much just like them. It helped that she passed around a bag of sugar-coated kosher candy.

“Judaism is not just a pure religion,” Liora told the students. “It is also a nationality. My faith and my love for God is my interpretation. So I do what is important to me. That’s what Jewishness is about. It’s about doing what you believe.”

Peter Yeung