When New is Old (is New Again)

Work on Berlin's New Synagogue began in 1859. The dedication in 1866 was a major event: Otto von Bismark, the Chancellor of Germany, was in attendance.

The New Synagogue was one of many in a city which at the time had one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, but it was new sort of synagogue in a few very important ways. Most synagogues were hidden in courtyards or alleyways. The New Synagogue was on a major street, just a short walk away from Unter Den Linden, which was (and is) to Berlin as the Champs Elysee was (and is) to Paris.

The New Synagogue was a clear statement that Jews, who had been in Germany for more than a thousand years already, were there to stay. This was not only a challenge to the various limitations on Jewish life which had existed throughout Europe since the Middle Ages, it was a challenge to the traditional Jewish view that life in Europe was life in exile.

The New Synagogue was part of the Reform movement. It had a choir, a sermon, and a seminary-educated rabbi, which all made it more like a German Protestant Church and less like a traditional synagogue. Those who attended saw themselves as fully Jewish, fully German, and thoroughly modern.

Things were never without complication, and walking the tightrope between being a part of society as a whole and maintaining existence as a people was never an easy task, but the 3,000 seats in the synagogue's main hall were filled every Shabbos.

Not even Kristallnacht could change that. The Nazi mob which came to burn the synagogue as it had burned others that night found itself face to face with a policeman who swore to protect the history of his city and nation. The fascists, used to having police egging them on or standing aside, were so surprised by his action that they actually dispersed.

The building survived the Nazis, but it would not survive the war. British bombs destroyed the main hall, and after the war everything but the facade was demolished. Most of it was rubble already. And the Jews who had built it and filled it each week were never coming home.

For years only the front stood, a partial ruin. Not until the Berlin Wall fell was it restored, and it was six years before the building would hold a synagogue once more. But it does now, it's the only Reform synagogue in Berlin, and so the old New Synagogue is new once more.

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