To counter ignorance, educational initiative asks Germans to ‘Rent a Jew’

Rita Haikin, a Jewish graduate student living in Krefeld, Germany, “rents” herself out. When she gets the call, she heads to a local school with another Jewish partner and some ritual objects to meet with pupils and introduce them to Jews and Judaism.

To dispel an age-old anti-Semitic myth, Haikin also likes to bring a shofar, a ram’s horn blown on the High Holidays.

“A few years ago, a German person actually asked me about my horns,” she said.

In a country with only 200,000 Jews out of a total population of 80.6 million, it is not uncommon for a German to have never met a Jew. For Germans, Jews are the victims of their country’s mid-20th century crimes against humanity. And there they remain in the minds of most, despite the fact that the German Jewish community is the fastest growing in Europe today.

There are several educational initiatives attempting to counter prevalent ignorance. Back in 2013, there was a “Jew in a Box” at Berlin’s Jewish Museum. As part of an exhibition titled “The Whole Truth,” German Jews took turns sitting for two-hour shifts in a glass box, answering visitors’ questions about Jewish life, religion and culture. Notwithstanding its instructive intentions, the merit of putting Jewish men and women on show in what was essentially a see-through cage was contentious.

Now a few years later, another initiative aimed at introducing Germans to contemporary Jews and Jewish life is similarly causing a stir, this time mainly because of its provocative name: “Rent a Jew.”

The moniker is meant to be catchy, but not taken literally. Contrary to how it might sound, the educational project does not involve the hiring of Jews. In fact, no fee is charged as Jewish adults between the ages of 20 and 40 volunteer to visit school classes and community groups around Germany to introduce them to basic information about Jews and Judaism.

While the notion of “renting” Jews has caused a meltdown on the web, according to a Times of Israel blog post by Rent a Jew co-founder Wiebke Rasumny, the name was actually inspired by a “Rent an American” citizen diplomacy project sending American students to visit classes in German schools that has operated since 2006 without controversy.

'Rent a Jew' coordinator Alexander Rasumny (Courtesy)

Launched in 2015, Rent a Jew is a grassroots effort supported by the European Janusz Korczak Academy and Nevatim (both associated with the Jewish Agency for Israel), as well as the Alliance for Democracy and Tolerance.

“We felt it was time for Germans, especially students, to speak with Jews, and not just about them,” said Alexander Rasumny, Rent a Jew’s Berlin-based coordinator and Wiebke Rasumny’s husband.

“Jews and Judaism are in the curriculum of German schools, but it amounts to people who aren’t Jews and who don’t know Jews talking about Jews. It’s all done from books, which is very dry,” Rasumny said.

“Some schools visit Jewish museums, but there they are interacting with ‘dead’ objects. It’s much better for the students to meet live, young people. Direct contact is the best way to counter stereotypes and make positive first impressions,” he said.

To date, approximately 60 Rent a Jew volunteers (usually in pairs) have made some 35 visits to schools and community groups all around Germany.

Some of the volunteers, like 25-year-old Haikin, immigrated from the Former Soviet Union. Others, like Monty Ott of Hanover, also 25, were born and raised in Germany. Regardless of their background, they all tell their personal stories of living as Jews in today’s Germany when they meet with groups.

Mascha Schmerling and Monty Ott from the 'Rent a Jew' project visit the Technisches Berufskolleg Solingen, Germany, November 2016. (Kate Brady/DW.com)

In Haikin’s case, this meant recently explaining to a 9th grade class in Essen, two-thirds of whom were immigrants, that at her upcoming wedding, she would marry her fiancé under a huppah, or traditional ceremonial canopy.

Students drew parallels between kosher and halal foods, and between the Jewish Sh’ma prayer and the Shehada

According to Haikin, who is studying for a Masters in industrial organizational psychology (she met her soon-to-be husband at the Hillel at university), the Muslim students were especially interested in what she and her Rent a Jew partner presented. The students drew parallels between kosher and halal foods, and between the Jewish Sh’ma prayer and the Shehada, the Islamic profession of faith.

“One particular Muslim boy asked many questions. It was really good, because his teacher said he usually never felt comfortable talking about religion at school,” Haikin said.

Rita Haikin (Courtesy)

Contrastingly, Ott and volunteer partner Mascha Schmerling visited a 9th grade class at a technical college in Solingen with few foreign-born students.

Although, according to Rasumny, Israel is not formally on the agenda of Rent a Jew presentations because the focus is on the German Jewish experience, the Jewish state inevitably comes up — as it did in Solingen.

“The students asked what Israel means to German Jews. Some of the questions were critical, and I really didn’t want to get political,” said Ott, who was recently in the Holy Land on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.

‘I told the kids that Israel is like a life insurance policy for German Jews’

“So I told the kids that Israel is like a life insurance policy for German Jews. They could understand this because of the Holocaust and anti-racism education they have received in school,” he said.

Ott, a doctoral student who is active active in the Reform community and is an assistant to a member of the federal parliament, also explained why he personally loves to be in Israel, where he has visited four times.

Ott made a conscious decision following the anti-Israel protests of the summer of 2014 (sparked by the Gaza War) to wear his kippa openly in the street, for which he gets hateful responses.

A student at the Technisches Berufskolleg holds a kippa during a 'Rent a Jew' visit in Solingen, Germany, November 2016. (Kate Brady/DW.com)

“I explain to the kids that when I get to the streets of Tel Aviv, I wear my kippa and it is totally normal. It’s just part of my identity and I can live normally. Jews are not viewed as a normal part of Germany society,” he said.

According to Rasumny, 33, the students don’t come into the encounters with the “rented” Jews with many preconceptions or misconceptions about contemporary Jews.

“There is an overall lack of knowledge about Judaism and Jewish history, especially post-World War II, in German society,” he said.

Mascha Schmerling and Monty Ott from the 'Rent a Jew' project visit the Technisches Berufskolleg Solingen, Germany, November 2016. (Kate Brady/DW.com)

Rent a Jew also sends volunteers to speak to adult groups at churches, education courses and community events. Sometimes these groups ask for specific topics to be covered. For example, one adult eduction group wanted to hear about Israelis living in Berlin (it is estimated that there are 15,000 of them), and a Christian LGBTQ group asked for a presentation on Judaism and homosexuality.

Rasumny said he is pleased with the response the initiative has received, both in terms of the number of volunteers stepping up to help, and the volume of requests for “rentals.”

So far, the arrival of nearly a million mainly Middle Eastern refugees in Germany has not altered the experiences of Rent a Jew volunteers. Rasumny said the volunteers have only encountered a few refugee children in German school groups, and they have not brought any negative views of Jews with them into the classroom.

“They’ve been attentive, focused kids,” Rasumny said.

For her part, Haikin is pleased to be able to meet with children from new immigrant communities.

“I think it is especially important that Muslim and immigrant kids be exposed to Jews in this positive way, because we don’t know what they are being exposed to about Jews at home,” she said.

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