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Potsdam's new synagogue a 'milestone' for Jewish community

July 4, 2024

Potsdam is the last of Germany's 16 state capitals to open a synagogue. The lengthy construction process has ended with a much-anticipated event and involves a unique ownership model.

People stand in the central space of the new synagogue
The Potsdam Synagogue opened its doors to the public for the first time on July 1Image: Christian Ditsch/epd-bild/picture alliance

The Potsdam Synagogue is opening its doors to the public for the first time on Thursday, only a few hundred meters from the Brandenburg state parliament building in the heart of the city's historic center.

It's an impressive building, with a sand-colored brick facade that rises a good four stories high. The seven distinctive arched windows that open up onto the sanctuary on the first and second floors look like a work of modern Gothic art.

Potsdam is the last of Germany's 16 state capitals to now have a prominent synagogue; the construction of the building has been almost 20 years in the making.

Memorial plaque for the city's synagogue
Potsdam's former synagogue, which was desecrated in 1938 and destroyed by bombs in 1945, is remembered with a memorial plaque at its original siteImage: Christoph Strack/DW

New synagogue 'a strong sign' for Jewish life

In early January 2005, the state government signed an agreement with the Jewish Community of the State of Brandenburg, which included a promise by the state to support the community's efforts to build a synagogue. However, things did not move as quickly as the state government had planned.

An architectural competition was held in 2008 and won by the Berlin architect Jost Haberland and his team. Yet both politicians and representatives of the Jewish community carried on with the discussions, rejecting plans for the project, making fresh inquiries and renegotiating.

Street view of the new synagogue in Potsdam
The new synagogue in Potsdam has a touch of Gothic flairImage: Christoph Strack/DW

What became clear from this process was that the groups involved represented several competing schools of Judaism. These groups have been worshipping in different temporary spaces for some time now.

Judaism is not a monolith, but consists of a variety of different movements. Just as there isn't just one representative of the Jewish community in the city of Potsdam, there have also been not one, but two state associations for several years now.

For this reason, the Brandenburg Ministry of Science, Research and Culture opted for an unusual model, which is in fact one of a kind in Germany, when selecting the Frankfurt-based organization the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany (ZWST) as a cooperation partner for the construction of the building.

The groundbreaking ceremony took place in 2021, with the Brandenburg State Office for Real Estate and Construction (BLB) as the project developer. A few weeks ago, the BLB handed over the completed building to the ZWST, which will operate the synagogue in trust for three years.

According to official figures, the construction cost about €16.5 million ($17.9 million). ZWST head Abraham Lehrer said the official inauguration marks "a milestone for the Jewish community in Potsdam and Brandenburg. The new synagogue center is a strong sign that Jewish life is visible and firmly anchored in the heart of society — especially in these challenging times for Jews."

According to the most recent statistics from the ZWST, there were 1,691 registered Jewish community members in Brandenburg at the end of 2022. Estimates indicate that up to 1,200 live in Potsdam.

Four Jewish communities will share space

As in other parts of Germany, the ZWST supports social projects and services for the state's Jewish community and is an important source of support for the people. Now, it will be responsible for allocating the use of the rooms in the new center and ensuring "that all people of the Jewish faith can use the synagogue."

Specifically, this includes members of four Jewish communities in Potsdam that exist alongside each other, namely the Jewish community of the city of Potsdam, the Potsdam synagogue community, the Adass Jisroel community and the Kehilat Israel community. As the manager of the new synagogue, the ZWST will receive up to €650,000 (around $700,500) a year from the state.

A middle-aged man with glasses and a graying beard standing in front of a tapestry
Ud Joffe heads the Potsdam synagogue community

A few days before the opening, Ud Joffe, the head of the Potsdam synagogue community, stands in a room on the second floor of a house just a 10-minute walk from the new building. This is the space which his community has been using as a synagogue. Nothing on the outside of the building suggests it's a place of worship. But the room has everything a Jewish house of prayer needs: a Torah ark in an old chamber, a lectern for the Torah scrolls and chairs in the men's and women's sections.

Born in Israel, 56-year-old Joffe is a very committed and well-known conductor in Berlin and Potsdam, where he has lived and worked for decades.

So how does Joffe view the opening? "With mixed feelings," he told DW. Of course, the building has symbolic significance for Potsdam and the state of Brandenburg. But he feels that because of that, too much attention has been paid to "political interests" for too long. And yet, he said, as a religious community, it's good for the Jews to have this building now.

"Perhaps it will take a few years before we realize how important it was, not only that Potsdam got a synagogue, but that we, the city's Jewish religious communities, got one. It's an instrument that also helps us members to 'define our identity,'" he said.

But Joffe is also optimistic, adding that the building could prove to be a magnet and actively attract Jewish families from Berlin to Potsdam. "We're not that big [a community] in Potsdam," he said, adding that the new start could also "bring the Jews of Potsdam together, to unite the different cultures and languages."

Young German Jews refuse to be intimidated after attacks

This festive day in Potsdam will be overshadowed by the huge rise in antisemitism in Germany and the ongoing conflict in Gaza. The guest list for the opening makes it clear that it's a special occasion.

The keynote speaker at the opening ceremony will be German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier . In addition to the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, and rabbis from various communities in Germany, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, are also expected to attend, as well as the head of Brandenburg's state government, Dietmar Woidke, and several members of the state government. It's an unusually high number of prominent politicians to turn out for such an occasion.

Of the 199 seats in the synagogue, only about a third are reserved for members of the city's Jewish community.

This article was originally written in German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C