A Rabbi Grows in Berlin
To contemplate the phenomenon that is Rabbi Gesa Ederberg is to enter an alternate universe, a place where the vocabulary is familiar but everything else is subtly different.
That’s because Gesa Shira Ederberg is the rabbi of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin.
To unpack that sentence: A little more than six decades after the end of World War II, a Lutheran-born German, a Machon Schechterordained Conservative/Masorti woman, is the spiritual leader of Berlin’s stateliest and most prominent synagogue, where she leads a flourishing young congregation.
At times truth is stranger than fiction.
Rabbi Ederberg’s story, unusual as it is, moves with the inevitability of a good Victorian novel. It could have happened only in postwar Germany, and in fact it begins in Tuebingen, a small town in the country’s southwest, where she was born in 1968. Tuebingen is a very old town – its university recently celebrated its 750th anniversary – and it is beautiful, a prototypical Central European college town. Rabbi Ederberg’s mother taught French and German at the local high school and her father worked in an international youth exchange program with France and Israel. The exchange program, like so much else in Germany, was in direct response to the war. Because of it, Gesa’s first trip to Israel came when she was 13.
“I had a completely normal childhood,” she said. Her family was deeply committed to the church, and so was she. “I have always been a religious person, although I struggled with the institutional side of it, as you do growing up in any religion. But I felt really at home in the church; now, when people come to me saying they’re interested in conversion because they hate Christianity, I send them back to deal with those feelings first.”
Still, Rabbi Ederberg found herself drifting slowly but inexorably away from the religion of her birth. “I somehow lost Christianity without realizing it,” she said. “There were two main issues for me. There was the anti-Jewish attitude in the New Testament, which is not consistent with the rest of its message. And then there was how deeply at home I felt as soon as I experienced synagogue life, how deeply at home I felt with the liturgical text.” She did not give up actively being Christian then, but one day she looked back and realized that she no longer was one.
“I really don’t know how it works,” she said. “It’s difficult to say this is what God did in my life, but looking back, I think it might have been God giving me the best education he could have for my job. A Jewish kid growing up in Germany when I did would never consider being a rabbi, because so much of being Jewish was about the Holocaust and how all Jews should go to Israel. It was not possible then for Jewish children to have a normal childhood. I do believe it’s possible now.”
Like many European children Gesa learned many languages, and she has learned even more since then. She is fluent in German, English, Hebrew, French, Spanish, and Russian; she understands Yiddish and can read Latin and classical Greek.
After spending the year between high school and college in Chile, working in a kindergarten in a Santiago slum (“people sometimes ask me why I have a lower-class Chilean accent in Spanish”), Rabbi Ederberg’s formal education took her to Berlin. She studied Protestant philosophy and earned her undergraduate degree in physics. “I wanted to understand how the world works,” she said. The philosophy courses included much from the German Jewish theologians Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. “Looking back, I see that I studied a lot of Judaism,” she said. Next, she decided to go to Israel with a program that brought Protestant theologians to the Hebrew University. It was 1991, at the start of the Gulf War, when Israel was under great threat. “I left feeling that I didn’t belong, wondering where I did belong. I wasn’t a Protestant, and I wasn’t a Jew. I couldn’t stay during the war out of solidarity because it just didn’t make sense. The crisis in Israel brought up the existential issue of who exactly I am, where exactly do I belong, and what way of relating to God is the way meant to be right for me.”
She went to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to study midrash, still a Protestant, and began to go to minyan there every morning. “I was at the seminary when I had a clear feeling that this is where I belong,” she said. She went back to Germany “to double check, to see how it feels.” It still felt right.
Rabbi Ederberg knew immediately which stream of Judaism was right for her. To become a Conservative Jew “was just natural. I am happy to be a woman, and to me as a woman Orthodoxy is not an option. And I wanted the fullness of Jewish life, and that means that halakhah is necessary. I wanted to buy the entire package.” Therefore, Reform Judaism was not an option either. “Conservative Judaism fits the culture. It’s modern, it’s up-to-date, and it also is traditional. We do things as they are supposed to be done.”
Back in New York, she completed the transformation that made her officially part of the Jewish people.
Her family supported her choice, Rabbi Ederberg said. “I involved my parents very early in the process.” Their only concern was whether the conversion would be good for their daughter. “They were doing their job as parents. My ather came to New York for my first aliya. It was at the Jewish Theological Seminary, at the Women’s League synagogue. I layned. It was amazing. Everyone was in tears.” Including her.
She also married; her husband, Nils, is another Conservative/Masorti German Jew-by-choice. His father’s family had Jewish roots, and he had spent time in Israel. “We knew each other from before, but we converted separately and then fell in love with each other later,” she said.
Gesa moved back to Berlin and joined the community at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue. The imposing building, with a golden dome that seems to float over the city, was partially demolished when the Allies bombed the city. Parts of it have been restored but other sections are kept as ruins, so that people who look at it cannot possibly forget. It is a huge building, which once seated 3,000 people, and much of it has been made into museum space, but the chapel is used to house the congregation. There Gesa opened a nursery school for Jewish children and ran educational programs for Jewish adults. Fairly quickly, it became obvious both to her and to the community that she should become a rabbi. She went to Machon Schechter, where she could perfect her Hebrew and acquire the authority that comes from being ordained in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Ederberg is now the director of Masorti Germany as well as the rabbi of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue; the pulpit was given to her, as must happen in Germany, by a vote of the city’s Gemeinde, its Jewish Community Council. She is the first woman to hold that position. Her appointment was not without controversy; an Orthodox rabbi complained bitterly but did not prevail. “Sometimes, I look at that dome, and I see how beautiful it is, and then I remember: ‘Oh, it’s ours!’” she said.
The congregation is young and involved; members deal with the still-reverberating echoes of the Holocaust and at the same time are creating a vibrant community. “It is our obligation to bring Judaism alive here and it is equally our duty to commemorate those who have gone away,” Rabbi Ederberg said. “We have to remember those without names and put them in the context of ongoing Jewish life.”
The tension between looking forward and looking back means that Rabbi Ederberg, balancing on the fulcrum between them, often teeters in one direction or the other. “There is an amazing memorial in one of Berlin’s neighborhoods that was very Jewish before the war,” she said. “There are street signs with icons describing local institutions, and then on the other side of the sign it says when the Jews were discriminated against there. There’s a sign with the subway station’s name that says when Jews weren’t allowed to use public transit any more. It hits home with people.
“When I first rode my bicycle there I really was excited about the signs, and then I realized that I hate them. It feels oppressive. It’s hard to feel normal. I get that same feeling sometimes walking into our synagogue. We have high security, we have groups of tourists, and you see them looking at you.” It makes her feel like another exhibit.
There are many children in Rabbi Ederberg’s congregation, including her own young twins, and she welcomes them. “When we take the Torah out from the ark during services, the kids come up to the bimah. It does take away from the solemnity of the occasion, from the feeling of abstract kiddusha, because they’re kids. The other day, my daughter brought her stuffed dog, and the dog started nudging me. So it does take something away, but on the other hand it adds so much. I’ve heard so many comments, particularly from elderly people, about how this is really what it’s all about.”