May 27, 2004
Teens Build a Bridge Beyond the Past
"I was afraid there could be aggression toward us, because we are German. I'm really surprised about how friendly and open all the people are." -- Hannah Ketterer, teenage exchange student from Germany
"We didn't see each other as the grandchildren of Nazis or as grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. We saw each other as regular kids who wanted to learn more about each other's religious lifestyles and cultures." -- Lindsey Michel, Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills
On April 19, 12 German teenagers left Heidelberg, flew west for about 6,000 miles, disembarked at LAX, and entered the lives and homes of 12 Jewish American teenagers. None of the 24 teens knew quite what to expect.
During their two-week stay in homes of Kol Tikvah congregants, the German students visited local high schools, attended Shabbat services, took part in a Yom HaShoah program, tried a range of new foods and looked everywhere for Tom Cruise.
The German-Jewish exchange program at the Reform congregation is apparently the first of its kind on the West Coast. Originally created by Stefan Schluter, Germany's deputy consul general in New York City, the idea for the exchange was born after 45 members of the American Board of Rabbis visited Berlin in 2001.
"They asked me to organize their annual meeting," Schluter said, "which I did. One thing they were interested in was the growth and experiences of the Jewish community in Germany."
While the rabbis were in Berlin, Schluter divided them into 10 groups of four to five rabbis each and they went to local schools to talk to German students.
"When we had their final meeting before flying back to the States," Schluter recalled, "nearly all said that meeting the German students was the most impressive part of the program."
Schluter then asked the rabbis if they would like to have such students visit their congregations, as part of a student exchange. The rabbis immediately agreed.
The exchange program was tried successfully in New York City in 2002 and 2003, and then Schluter asked Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs if he would like to have the exchange program at Kol Tikvah this year. Jacobs was thrilled.
Kol Tikvah's religious school director, Karen Waldman, had the task of coordinating the program, which included selecting students and families and inviting them to host a German student. Waldman was shocked and saddened when one parent refused, saying she didn't "want a Nazi in our home."
The rest of the families accepted with great enthusiasm.
When Schluter came to Kol Tikvah in April to meet with Waldman and the 12 families, he offered insights into German life.
"Germany today has 80 million people," Schluter said. "Of those, approximately 130,000 are Jewish, mostly Russian Jews who have come to Germany for a better life."
According to Schluter, most of these Jews don't speak German, and they lead a rather isolated existence.
In other words, most German children have never met a Jew.
Many young Germans, Schluter said, are troubled by their history, and how others in the world view them.
"Our history is so burdened, that the impressions they gain from the exchange program are life changing," he said. "These kids know their history and they think other people think they are guilty. They need to experience that they aren't being held responsible. We are responsible that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again."
On one of their first days in Los Angeles, Waldman took the students to a Yom HaShoah program. She was extremely uncomfortable.
"When the first rabbi spoke and was saying very negative things about the Germans and the Nazis, it was like a knife twisting in my heart," she said. "I was feeling protective of the kids. I kept asking if they wanted to leave and they said no. They were engrossed in the whole thing and they wanted to hear it all."
On April 23, the 24 students attended Shabbat dinner and services at Kol Tikvah. There was an excitement in the air, and much teenage gabbing. It was clear that they had formed strong bonds with each other in the four days they'd been together.
"The minute we met, we felt like friends!" said Katharina Pogoda, one of the German teens. "The Jewish people we've met are all so warm and friendly, like a big family. And I was surprised that they have school in their temple where the children are taught so nice."
I asked the German students what they had learned at home about the Holocaust. "When we learned in school about the Holocaust, it was just facts," said Hannah Ketterer. "We did not have discussions about what would have been on the Jews' minds. We're learning that here, and we're learning about Judaism and getting to know Jewish people."
Ludgera Graw, the German students' chaperone, got to attend a gathering at Kol Tikvah one evening where Jacobs and the Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, talked together about the movie, "The Passion of The Christ." Graw said she found it very interesting and was impressed at the interfaith efforts being made.
Rabbi Jacobs said there was one rather tense moment.
"There were older survivors here that evening," he said. "And one person was very bitter about the Germans. He talked about anti-Semitism in Germany and how he grew up there with people beating him up and he said he has no hope for the world. I then introduced Ludgera to the audience, and I said, 'The hope is right here with these young German people who are visiting our Jewish families."
Graw said she felt very sad hearing the survivor's anger and pain.
"I wondered if I should go to him and speak to him," she said, "but I wasn't sure how he would react, since he wasn't prepared to meet Germans."
At the Shabbat dinner, Jacobs spoke to the exchange students.
"You have touched us in many, many ways by your humanity and by your openness," he said. "This is a world that is often cruel. But you are the answer, in terms of the possibilities of what we can do in this world by knowing each other. This is more important than any headline in any newspaper or CNN. What will happen in these weeks and in Germany when our kids visit you will affect your whole lives. We are so, so honored that you are here. You make our lives more complete."
On May 3, the 24 German and Jewish high school students struggled to say their goodbyes to each other.
"I am a changed person," said Kol Tikvah's Bradley Lennox. "I never imagined in a million years that two completely different cultures could come together and become family in a matter of two weeks."
The Calabasas High senior looks forward to the Jewish students' two-week visit with their new friends this summer in Heidelberg.
After the German teens went home, several of them e-mailed me.
"This exchange definitely changed my way of thinking," Johannes Ziegelmuller wrote. "I am now confirmed in my point of view that young people are able to communicate and to be friends, although there have been terrible things in the past. Although there are borders, although there are different cultures and countries, there can be a borderless communication and dialogue. I think this exchange is a great and valuable project that helps to open peoples' eyes, to create a world without hate, prejudices, discrimination and persecution."
Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and oral historian in Van Nuys. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .