Last October 9, on Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur, a man heavily armed trying to storm the synagogue in the city of Halle, east Germany. Only the heavy wooden doors of the building protected the more than 50 Jewish worshipers inside from catastrophe. When the attacker was unable to carry out the planned mass shooting, he killed two people in the vicinity, one on the street and the other he targeted at a Turkish kebab shop.
This year, the night of September 27 marks the beginning of Yom Kippur. Rafi Rothenberg has found a way to deal with the horror of the attacks in his community without letting him cover up this year’s celebrations.
The 70-year-old man is the head of Cologne’s small, liberal Jewish community of 160. Rothenberg had the film ready to show them at the beginning and end of Yom Kippur. It contains images of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the empty streets of Israel during holy days and Yom Kippur many centuries ago.
The thick wooden doors of the Halle synagogue are among these images – a photo that has gained considerable fame.
“I don’t want Judaism to be reduced to anti-Semitism,” said Rothenberg. “But the program is still so close that we shouldn’t hide it. It won’t affect the fun of the service.”
Showing a picture of the door at Halle was important to him. He plans to show me a good photo afterwards, maybe at sunset.
All over Germany, members of the Jewish community are also preparing for Yom Kippur. Berlin residents Nirit Bialer and Dekel Peretz, both from Israel, have lived in Germany for 14 years. Bialer went to the synagogue at Yom Kippur even though he was not religious and did not observe all the Jewish holy days.
“It’s the right of the Jews. I consider it my duty to go to the synagogue at Yom Kippur, also for those before me who couldn’t.”
Bialer and Peretz befriend some of Halle’s survivors. Many are still suffering because of what happened, they said. Their visit to the synagogue in Berlin this year was also devoted to the Halle community.
Safety during a pandemic
But it is not only memories of anti-Semitic attacks that are on the minds of the Jewish community. Members of the public are also concerned about security at the synagogue, which is a particular challenge during the coronavirus pandemic.
Leo Latasch has more to do ahead of the holy day than usual. A 67-year-old doctor from the Jewish community in Frankfurt is responsible for the safety of 6,500 people. Due to the pandemic, additional space needs to be provided for members, such as in rooms at a Jewish school. This means ensuring safety over a wider area.
Security is one of the most pressing concerns after the attack on Halle. Critics say police in Saxony-Anhalt, the state where Halle is located, are the reason the heavy wooden doors are their only protection. The synagogue lacked continued police protection; a police car would only pass by once in a while.
Journalist Ronen Steinke notes in his book “Terrorism Against Jews” that regulatory gaps are to blame. According to Steinke, Saxony-Anhalt had a contract with the Jewish community that guaranteed its protection. But the details were never finalized, so the synagogue remained almost completely unprotected, which turned out to be a serious mistake, as the events of 9 October 2019 demonstrated.
In the aftermath of the attack, discussion around the safety of the Jewish community quickly heated up, especially in Germany over the country’s Nazi past. This is also why things have happened since the attack on Halle.
Most German states have increased resources for their Jewish communities since last year to help them invest in bulletproof gates and gates. The federal government has also announced that it will provide an additional € 22 million ($ 25.6 million) for the protection of Jewish facilities to bring their protective measures up to national standards. Its reality forced the Jewish community to become a bulwark.
Latasch knows what it means: her synagogue, school, daycare and community senior center will be looked after around the clock. He worked closely with the local police and said their relationship was “very good”.
But the burden is evident, even in Frankfurt, where the community is, as Latasch puts it, “always ready for an attack like the one in Halle.” The community here pays more than € 1 million ($ 1.17 million) out of its own pocket annually for security. About 90% of it is used for security personnel.
The reason is that the police can only enter the location in an emergency so as not to appear to be working for them. So if a facility still wants on-site protection, it will be expensive.
“The costs have reached a level where we wonder if we have to bear it ourselves,” said Latasch. “But I believe we will find a solution. Halle is putting more pressure on politicians to eventually invest money.”
In Ronen Steinke’s view, the costs are too high, especially for smaller communities.
“The state has to pay 100%, not just 50, 70 or 80%,” he told a press conference in Berlin, adding that emergency response is an issue the state must address.
The sight of the fence around the synagogue in Berlin saddened Peretz. “It is difficult for the Jewish community to open up on itself because the walls are not inviting,” he said.
He and Bialer also noticed that people often didn’t realize that there was a synagogue behind the fence. And thus what has also escaped their attention is what has challenged every danger in Germany, and not only in Yom Kippur: Jewish life.
This article is translated from German by Kathleen Schuster.