Jewish teens are enlisted to fight anti-Semitism in Germany
Sophie Steiert opens a bag of kosher gummy bears and offers them to 20 other German teenagers seated around her in their high-school classroom.
“They’re really yummy,” Steiert, 16, says with an enticing smile. “And by the way, does any one of you know what kosher means?”
The students shrug. Most of the 17-year-olds never have met a Jewish person. In school, they’ve only talked about dead Jews: the 6 million killed by the Nazis.
For years, the Jewish community in Germany relied on Holocaust survivors to be its ambassadors. Jews who made it through the horror were the ones with the moral authority to teach young Germans about the perils of anti-Semitism and the crimes of their forefathers.
But with the number of survivors dwindling and schoolchildren today at least three generations removed from the Nazis, young Jews like Steiert are being tapped to put a modern take on an old message.
More than talking about the crimes of the past, they have been encouraged as volunteers for a school outreach program to focus on Jewish life in Germany today.
The program was launched amid fresh concerns about anti-Semitism in schools and on the streets of German cities.
Enter Steiert and her friend Laura Schulmann, two girls from Berlin who want to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes as their community’s 21st-century ambassadors.
Germany’s leading Jewish group, the Central Council of Jews, started the peer-to-peer education project last year. Both the program and the 90 Jewish teenagers recruited for it so far are called “likratinos,” which is based on the Hebrew word “likrat” and loosely translates as “moving toward each other.”
As part of their training, the Jewish teenagers receive coaching on speaking in front of groups, talking about the Jewish faith and dealing with possible anti-Semitic reactions.
Central Council of Jews President Josef Schuster said he thinks the likratinos project can be called a success after almost 80 presentations. He thinks it’s because Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers can relate at the same level.
“There’s, for example, this thinking that all Jews have long noses,” Schuster said. “But when they meet Jewish kids and realize that they are no different from them, that they listen to the same music, wear the same clothes, then that knocks down barriers.”
The only problem, he said, is there are more schools requesting workshops than Jewish youngsters to give them.
Germany’s population of 82.8 million now includes only about 200,000 Jews.