German-Jewish Program Aims to Build Some New Bridges

Hans Koebler had heard stories from his grandfather, who had been a member of the Hitler youth. And he had learned about the Holocaust in school, but the youth had trouble wrapping his mind around events that took place before he was born.

"It's not personal for us anymore as kids," said Koebler, 17. "It's dimensions we can't think of — we didn't see the war."

The American Jewish/German Exchange Program, which is sponsored by the North American Board of Rabbis and the department of education in Germany, is working to alter sentiments like these.

The initiative, which has operated in several cities across the country for the past three years, allows German teens and their American Jewish counterparts to meet, talk with, and hopefully, befriend one another.

By doing so, program architects hope to build a generation of German and Jewish teens neither too far removed from — nor too mired in — their past.

This year's exchange allowed 12 American high-schoolers to travel to Germany, where they stayed with host families, attended school part-time and traveled throughout the country.

The students, who hail from Cheltenham, Lower Moreland, Upper Dublin and Penn Charter schools, took a river cruise in Heidelberg, toured sites in Berlin and visited Buchenwald concentration camp, among other things.

Rabbi Lance Sussman, the program's regional contact and the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, said that he hoped the group would leave with a sense that German Jewish heritage is not just about the Holocaust.

"There's a 1,000-year-old history — the birth of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the history of the Yiddish language," he said. "There's a lot they can learn that's positive."

That goes for the German teens, too, emphasized Sussman: "Many Germans want to know what Jewish life is like," apart from the Holocaust.

Toward that end, German exchange partners arrived stateside on Oct. 7.

Here until Oct. 21, the group of students is staying in homes across Montgomery County.

On this year's agenda are: a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; as well as walking tours of Harlem, N.Y.; and of Jewish Philadelphia.

And on a lighter note, they'll be stopping by to see Lucy the Elephant in Margate, N.J.

'Everything Is Bigger'

While touring the National Liberty Museum last Thursday, Andres De Kartzow, a 16-year-old German student, offered a few thoughts on life in America.

"Everything is bigger," he said, citing "a lot of wasting energy."

However, he did praise the school system, and said that he'd been impressed by all the culture he had seen.

De Kartzow also noted that he was rather surprised to learn that Jews "look like us, and it's the same."

Previously, he had imagined all Jews to be Chasidic.

Michael Serdikoff, a member of Keneseth Israel, said he discovered, even as a parent, that the program had a similarly eye-opening effect for him.

"If you're Jewish and you're American, you grow up hating Germans," he admitted. "You didn't buy BMWs or Mercedes — or do anything having to do with Germany."

But Serdikoff's anti-Germany sentiments have receded over the years since his two daughters have participated in the program.

"We are trying to erase all the barriers — to create Jewish-German friendship," said Serdikoff, who himself is a program volunteer. "Relationships are built one [person] at a time."


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