If I hadn’t paid attention to the Hebrew calendar date and had merely wandered into the building through the side door of this Christian community center, I might have thought we had stumbled upon an oddly-situated Passover seder. Well, not exactly. There was no food on the table and the vocals were prayerful rather than storytelling. But the thirty or so very focused people assembled in the nondescript room sat around a U-shaped table and, as directed by the congregational leader, periodically took turns reading passages in the prayer book in Hebrew and German.
Instead of hearing: “Di, diyanu…” we heard, in a familiar but variant melody : “S’lakh lanu, mikhal lanu, kaper lanu.” Or in English translation: “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” The day was Yom Kippur.
My husband Curt and I have video production companies, and we were working in Germany a week and a half ago. Our last interview ended about 24 hours before Kol Nidrei – the start of the Yom Kippur holiday — began, so we decided to join a local progressive community. Online research brought us to the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde Köln, the liberal Jewish community of Koln. After sending a contact form in advance, we received an email that felt more like an electronic hug, inviting us to join them at their worship services and break the fast at the end of the holiday. They asked nothing from us.
And so it was that Curt and I found ourselves sitting around the table, running our fingers through an English/Hebrew siddur simultaneously with the German/Hebrew one, ensuring we kept up with the collective prayers. As if we were participating in the service at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, NJ — the Reconstructionist synagogue where we have been members for years — we added our voices to traditional tunes and contemplated the ways in which over the past year we had missed the mark (as our friend Rabbi Michael Monson describes the festival’s meaning of “atonement”). After a few brief moments of initial adjustment, we could not have felt more comfortable anywhere in the world than we did in this warm, little community in Koln, Germany.
During the afternoon break, we had the opportunity to meet others attending that day. The services were led by a former BBC radio reporter. There was a writer of children’s books, an American post-doc student, and an Argentinian businessman. There were young children and some elderly faces, couples and single people, Jews by birth and Jews by conversion. The trait they all shared was the desire to be present. Not straying from the prayer book, skipping passages, adding readings, providing choral renditions, or whispering on the side, the congregation patiently digested the text a page at a time, hour after hour.
Cognizant that the community we had joined was in Germany, I expected to be particularly touched during the martyrology service, when the text refers to Jewish martyrs through time, including all those who were slaughtered during the Holocaust. Interestingly, 66 years after the end of World War II, I found this segment no more powerful in Koln than in Montclair, where impactful poetry and prose supplement and intensify the classic liturgy. And yet for me the service in the Jewish community of Koln emanated meaningfulness, sourced instead in the diversity of faces around the table and their devotion to the words they uttered hour after hour with such full hearts and souls.
Slowly the sun rose then set. About an hour before the shofar announced the end of the festival, close non-Jewish friends of ours who live in nearby Bonn came to Koln to join us. They, too, were welcomed into this warm circle of people. When the night descended, the group shared with us and our friends their delicious break-fast of homemade spicy tomato soup together with German cheeses and breads – and invitations, of course, to join them on the upcoming holiday of Sukkot.
We flew back to NY the next day, feeling richer from having shared the rituals of the day in the context of another Jewish communal culture. But we also felt that this community’s genuineness, devotion, and generosity had filled the traditional greeting of “l’shanah tovah,” “to a good year,” with a new and special meaning for us.
And so I recount some memories of the holiday we witnessed, hoping to spread the positive karma that surrounded us that day. May this New Year fill the peoples of the world with the kind of genuineness, devotion and generosity exemplified by the Jüdische Liberale Gemeinde Köln! And let us say: Amen!