The largest Jewish building project in Germany since the Holocaust, Berlin's Jewish Campus is set to break ground on Sunday. The site will accommodate some 500 children and is designed to instill hope.
"Those who build, stay; they look forward to the future." Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal of the Jewish Community of Berlin is a master when it comes to succinct, poignant statements. "Those who build, show trust. We are here to actively shape the long-term and vibrant future of the Jewish community in Germany." That, he says, is the message.
Teichtal, an Orthodox rabbi, is the chairman of the Jewish Educational Center in Berlin. On Sunday, he will welcome German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Jewish Campus in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of Berlin. The campus will house a day care center, a school and a gymnasium that can also be used for film screenings and theater productions. It will be the largest Jewish building project in Germany since the end of World War II.
'Largest center in Europe'
Born in New York, Teichtal has been active in Berlin for some 20 years. During that time he has continually shaped the city's Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Center. The Lubavitch are a strict Jewish Orthodox community, "Orthodox but open," says Teichtal. About 15 years ago the center opened a day care center. Initially there were only a handful of children there, now the center's temporary site welcome dozens of children each day.
In 2007, an old industrial building, part of the city's electricity transformer station network, was converted into an educational and family center with a synagogue, multi-purpose rooms and a replica of Jerusalem's Western Wall. Now, the Jewish Campus will be added, with spaces for education, culture and sports. It is to be the largest Jewish educational center in Europe.
The initial idea, says the rabbi, came in 2013. "Back then it was a dream. Now it is becoming a reality." To his knowledge, the project is "unique for postwar Germany." His primary interest in building the center is to foster integration. "But integration doesn't mean assimilation. We are talking about integration with identity."
That reality will be a six-story building in a small park. The community was able to purchase an adjacent parcel of land to house the new center. So far, the center consists of 1,000 square meters (10,800 square feet) of refurbished space; another 7,000 are to be added. Among other things, the new site will provide space for 500 children and young people — from day care to high school.
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Architect Sergei Tchoban describes the design as "a free form that moves freely." The building will feature an open design that will stand on the site with a soft, round form. The facade will be dominated by ceramic tiles in blue and white tones, colors that recall the Israeli flag or a Jewish prayer shawl.
Beyond that, the building will also have something that is obligatory for Jewish institutions in Germany: bulletproof glass and a massive, fortified checkpoint at the entrance.
"We dream that one day we will no longer need to be concerned with security measures," says Teichtal. Nevertheless, he recounts that he himself experienced an act of anti-Semitism just two months ago, when he says he was harassed by passengers in a car that drove past him and his daughter as they were walking home from the synagogue.
"They shouted very unpleasant things," he says. However, he quickly adds: "That is why it's more important than ever to stand up for tolerance."
Teichtal says it is important that the project is "cross-cultural" and "open to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliations." The existing educational center is already a vibrant meeting point. Ever more groups of students are visiting, soldiers from the German army come here once a month and recently fellows from the German parliament also toured the institution.
Yet, when it comes to the new building, one guest was more important still for Teichtal. A few months ago, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, was in Wilmersdorf to learn about the project and found much praise for the initiative.
Estimated costs, according to Teichtal, will total some €18 million ($21 million). Two-thirds of that will be subsidized by the German federal government and the state of Berlin, as well as by a number of underwriting foundations. The rest will initially be financed with bank loans. The official name of the new site will be the Pears Jewish Campus, as the British-based Pears Family Foundation will be the permanent sponsor of the center's research and education programs.
No architect's fee
Teichtal will be able to save on one expenditure, though. Tchoban, who was also responsible for the construction of the synagogue in the old transformer station 10 years ago, has refused to charge a fee for his architectural plans. "That is my donation," he says. "This project is very special to me."
The 55-year-old, St. Petersburg-born architect says his family history was one reason for the decision to donate his time. Tchoban, a longtime Berlin resident who has completed a number of major projects in the city and elsewhere in Germany, says his grandfather "was an important Jewish academic in Russia." He says he is wholly convinced of the great importance of "strengthening Jewish life in Berlin."