Guest Blog: Introducing Ursula

My readers by now all know of the amazing German Pastor Ursula Sieg. She arranged all of the details and logistics of the wonderful ten weeks Vickie and I recently spent in Germany. She and her husband Pastor Martin Pommerening hosted us in their home, saw to our schedule and made sure we got to every place we had to be. Ursula also conceived and curated an amazing exhibit about Vickie’s mother, Stefanie Steinberg, a 93-year old artist who fled Nazi Germany as a child, for the benefit of students in the Holstenschule in Neumünster. Vickie and I are more grateful than we can express for their friendship and everything they did for us.

In addition to her off-the-chart administrative and organizational skills, Pastor Sieg is also an ardent student of the Hebrew Bible and a person who thinks deeply and critically about issues of religious thought. Because she has been such a source of light to Vickie and me, it is a pleasure to welcome her as Guest Blogger as we prepare to welcome, the Feast of Chanukah, our Festival of Lights!

The Visiting God
By Ursula Sieg

Although Stephen and Vickie’s visit was enriching for many in the German area of Holstein, Martin and I felt it was the most enriching for us since we had the privilege of hosting Vickie and Stephen in our home for ten weeks. I would like to share here some pieces of the treasure they left with us.

On one Sunday Martin and I, both Lutheran pastors, and Stephen had to give sermons in different churches on the same text from Exodus 34. So we decided to have a Torah study on Shabbat morning, as we loved to do when we visited Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.

Verses 6 and 7 contain key words in the Bible, which remain a burden for many Christians after the Nazi era, World War II and the Shoah. It is all about God’s mercy until we read that God punishes sinners for three or four generations. That is the popular understanding of these verses. And it is true. What our parents, grandparents and grand grandparents did and experienced in that time is still haunting us, and it does not make a difference if our ancestors were victims suffering the cruelty of Nazi perpetrators or if they acted out Nazi policies. Both victims and perpetrators and the descendants of both continue to struggle. Many don’t really know why they struggle so. But we in Germany do know that we are still dealing with this heritage. And professionals in psychology confirm that the words in Exodus are valid: Yes, it lasts until the fourth generation.

Stephen contributed a very helpful and moving rabbinic teaching about 34:1: Moses is carrying two new tablets to the mountaintop that he, not God, had to hew from the rock. Please read it in his blog (www.rabbifuchs.com) posting “The Church of the Broken Cross” (www.rabbifuchs.com, click on Blog). I’ll trace another line.

In his famous German language Bible edition Martin Luther translated the Hebrew word, “pakad” as “heimsuchen,” which literally means, “visiting home”. It could be a comforting word that means, “visiting somebody to bring him or her home.” But in German it became a synonym for punishment in a very hard way. “Heimsuchung” is a catastrophe to which nobody can respond.

But Martin Luther’s translation is very close to the Hebrew word (For those who not know: Lutheran Pastors in Germany are mandated to learn Bible-Hebrew for their study) “pakad“. Looking at some of the 301 places in the Hebrew bible using “pakad” the basic meaning is “visiting to learn how one is doing”. The visitor is a person in charge, a father looking at his children, a businessperson looking at the work of the employees, a king looking around in his kingdom. It is not only a nice visit for a coffee. It is a visit with consequences. Punishment is only one possible consequence. Other consequences could be a praise for good work, encouragement for difficult tasks, instruction and teaching, comfort in affliction, appointing somebody for a position after finding him or her worth it, fulfillment of a former promise, help if needed. God decided to liberate the Israelite people from Egypt after visiting them and seeing how badly they are treated. The visit could also be like one an envoy makes. An example is how Jesse sends David to see how his brothers are doing as soldiers in Saul’s troops against the Philistines.

The popular understanding of verse 7 “God is punishing the children and grandchildren for the sins of the fathers” is wrong. It comes from a misunderstanding of Luther’s word “Heimsuchen“. The right understanding is “God pays attention to the children, grandchildren, to everybody in the first, second third or fourth line related to the person doing evil.” God is visiting them to see how they are doing; how they are dealing with the impact of the sin that important persons committed.

I found a very helpful commentary that explained: At that time four generations lived together in one house, in one place. A wrongdoing affected them all directly. They could become victims of it, suffering because of the sin of their parents or relatives or they could learn by their example … However, they have to deal with the sin of their ancestors. But when children become adults, it is up to them to either stop doing it or continue to practice it, fight against the wrongdoing or defend it, to mourn and offer compensation for it or increase it, seek to learn the lessons of the past or remain lost in cluelessness…

God is visiting to see how we are doing and what is needed. It is different for each person. It is comfort and support, it is teaching and fostering, it is charge and punishment, and it is praise and new tasks. These actions are determined by God’s character. The visiting God introduces him/herself in verse 6 as compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith. God’s intention is not striving for power and wealth and not revenge or hate. God’s intention is our understanding of “Shalom” — as Stephen would say -– “a just, caring and compassionate society.”

Stephen and Vickie’s visit was a visit like this. When Stephan Block, Propst in Neumünster, showed Stephen and Vickie the Anschar Church, he told the story of Pastor Ernst Szymanowski-Biberstein. He was pastor in Kaltenkirchen around 1930 and an avid Nazi. He moved to Neumünster and was Propst (a leading pastor) there, than moved as Propst to Bad Segeberg, than he left the church and participated in WWII committing mass murder. Most of his victims were Jews. He was tried and sentenced to death at Nuremberg, but the church asked for mercy and his sentence was changed to life in prison. After a few years he was set free and worked for a short time in a church office.

I knew the story, but in this moment I shuddered because each day I drove Stephen and Vickie between Bad Segeberg, Neumünster, Kiel and Kaltenkirchen, where this pastor who did such evil lived and worked and got support from leaders of the church. Stephen and Vickie encountered his successors and saw how they deal with this heritage.

Of course those who still harbor Nazi ideology or resentments towards Jews did not attend the events with Vickie and Stephen. Whether they felt it or not they are punished by not getting to know this amazing couple. For everybody else it was comforting, strengthening and encouraging to hear messages offering deeper knowledge, understanding and wisdom. They let us feel God’s compassion and mercy.

I also felt pain and repentance because I saw that Vickie and Stephen were suffering and mourning at the memorials of lost synagogues. I felt their sadness when they encountered the small and struggling Reform Jewish communities in the country that was the rich center of Reform Judaism until 1933. And I felt their pain when they told of their parents’ hardship and losses caused by our ancestors. It pained my conscience to feel that they are suffering because of the Holocaust. Vickie and Stephen’s visit was not just for a coffee. They did not avoid the horrors of the past, but they encouraged us through their presence to do better. Every thing that they did and said was hugged by compassion, love and forgiveness. Thinking back to Vickie and Stephen’s visit helps me to understand the visiting God.

For me the birth of Jesus, which we Christians celebrate these days, is also a visit reenacting Exodus 34:7. Looking at Jesus from God’s self-introduction in Exodus 34 might shed new light on the Gospel.

And we, are we visitors like God is, or like those God would send as envoys to those who have to deal with a burden from their ancestors? A comment from Stephen to verse 6 was: “We are encouraged to be like God, compassionate and friendly, slow to anger, full of mercy and faith.” A visitor like this is always a Messiah.

Happy Chanukah to my Jewish readers and Merry Christmas to those who celebrate with me.

 Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah with her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening and Vickie .  Martin and Ursula built the Sukkah of us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

Pastorin Ursula Sieg in the Sukkah with her husband, Pastor Martin Pommerening and Vickie. Martin and Ursula built the Sukkah for us in their backyard in Bad Segeberg

Why I am Going to Germany

In a recent meeting the head of Germany’s United Jewish Appeal, Nathan Norman Gelbart, said in his address that the German Jewish community is scared “because these are things that have not occurred since 1933.”

Random attacks on Jews and Jewish groups in Europe testify that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Europe as my wife Vickie and I prepare to embark September 14 on a ten-week stay in Germany to work in synagogues, schools, and Lutheran churches to promote greater understanding and mutual respect.

The emotional highlight of the visit will doubtless come on November 9 when I speak at the annual Kristallnacht—known in Germany as Pogromnacht—commemoration at the famed Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the magnificent church where Martin Luther once preached and where Johann Sebastian Bach served as organist and choirmaster from 1723 until he died in 1750.

My father Leo Fuchs was arrested on Kristallnacht, an event that has both haunted and inspired me since I first learned about it in 1969. When my son, Leo Fuchs—a school principal named for my father–heard that I would speak there, he immediately made arrangements to fly to Leipzig from his home in San Francisco for the occasion. My cousin Irene is also coming from London.

This will be my third visit to the city where my father was born, grew up and where (as three sterling dishes that I treasure attest) he won citywide doubles championships in table tennis in 1929, 30 and 33, the year Hitler came to power.

My first two visits could not have been more different. In 1982 I was turned away at the East German border crossing, Oebisfelde, when I naively told the passport inspector that I was a rabbi on my way to Leipzig to visit the city of my father’s youth. Only after a day long detour Berlin where I reinvented myself as an art teacher eager to visit Leipzig’s famous museums did I receive a visa.

At that time the Jewish communal headquarters in Leipzig was a tiny dusty, hard to find cramped suite of offices that I reached by climbing a creaky, narrow staircase. The head of the community informed me at the time 67 Jews lived in Leipzig. In 1935 there were 18,000, 14,000 of whom perished in the Shoah.

When Vickie and I visited in 20ll, by contrast, we found the spacious Jewish community offices in a lovely refurbished synagogue. The young rabbi of Leipzig’s Jewish community–revitalized by the arrival of hundreds of Russian immigrants—personally guided us to the places where my relatives lived.

Ursula Sieg, regional Pastor for Church-School Relations of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of North Germany, is painstakingly coordinating our upcoming pilgrimage with a packed schedule of sermons, lectures and dialogues. Her motivation is to have Germans learn about Judaism and further Germany’s yeoman efforts to promote mutual understanding and respect. She has enlisted and received moral and financial support from the  Förderverein Judentum in Schleswig-Holstein (Society for Support of Judaism in Schleswig-Holstein), the Progressive Jewish Community of Kiel and the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin and Potsdam for these efforts. We are very grateful to Pastor Sieg and all of those who are contributing to making our visit a reality.

Last winter when Pastor Sieg first proposed the idea to me, it seemed a natural step in the remarkable progress Germany has made to atone for the horrors of the Hitler era. For example in 20ll and 2012 as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I signed papers that helped lead to the establishment of the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam. The agreements paved the way for the formal arrangements for the German government to fully fund the new institute, which offers B.A. and M.A. programs to students from Germany and beyond, including those studying to be rabbis and cantors. I Iook forward eagerly to returning to Potsdam to lecture and interact with students and faculty at the school.

With recent developments, though, the entire timbre of my visit has changed. Now my joyful anticipation is tempered by the reality that anti-Semitism in Europe –and even in Germany where anti-Jewish demonstrations are barred by law—is surfacing once again.

“Why are you going there,” people have asked? “You will do as much good as one bailing water from a rising river with a teaspoon.” Their challenge makes me toss and turn at night. I certainly do not believe I can cure the world, Europe or specific Germans of anti-Semitism. But I am also heartened by the way the German government—beginning with Chancellor Angela Merkel–and most of the German people officially and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.

Still I am wary. The current war in Israel and Gaza—and the world’s reaction to Israel’s efforts to protect its citizens from the terror of Hamas whose very existence is predicated on Israel’s destruction—gives credence once again to the notion that we Jews are, as the Moabite seer Balaam proclaimed long ago, “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9)

But still I will go. I will go with joy and gratitude for the people that invited me. I will go with the knowledge that many in Germany are eager to learn about the faith and way of life that gave birth to Christianity.

On my first visit to Leipzig, I had to visit the city zoo because on Kristallnacht the Jews of the city were rounded up and made to stand in the stream that flows through it. There, former neighbors and friends spat on them, jeered them and threw mud on them. In 1982 I stood on a bridge that straddles that stream weeping inside as I imagined my father standing in the water on that horrible night in 1938.

But as I was leaving the zoo I walked past a den of timber wolves where a cub was nursing in peaceful bliss at his mother’s breast. That scene etched itself into my heart as a symbol of the harmony that God wants us to strive for in this world.

I don’t expect anti-Semitism to disappear because I will spend ten weeks in Germany, but I feel that destiny is calling me to do my best. If enough people pick up their teaspoons and join the effort we can stop the rising waters of anti-Semitism from overflowing.