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Lessons from Bad Segeberg after 80 Years

Lessons from Bad Segeberg after 80 Years

The faces in the photo that hangs in the new synagogue in Bad Segeberg haunt me. They seared themselves into my brain the first time I saw it, and they do not let go.

What were these 26 souls thinking when – in hiding – they celebrated Purim in 1936? Their eyes and their smiles betray fear, and their resolve to celebrate the festival with joy.

There are those who demean Purim and the basis for the festival, the Book of Esther. They say:

“It is the only book in the Tanach that does not mention God!”

“The story reads like a cartoon melodrama. It is obviously a work of fiction.”

“I am turned off by the excessive violence described as the Jews take their revenge.”

These criticisms notwithstanding, Esther is our prototype story of triumph over forces that have tried to destroy us.

So what if the story is fictionalized and over drawn?  It is an inspiring tale of courage.

First of all, there is the courage of Vashti. What a role model she is for women of today who face sexual harassment! When the king wanted her to show her beauty (in the altogether, commentators claim) to his drunken friend, she had the courage to refuse. She put her dignity and self-respect above position and power.

Then there is the question of destiny. When Mordecai told Esther to tell the king she was Jewish, she replied, “I can’t.” No one sees the king without an invitation, and he has not invited me for 30 days.

“This is your moment,” claimed Mordecai. “Who knows if you did not become queen for just this opportunity that is uniquely yours to stand up for our people?” What a powerful message.

If we look for them, we all have moments when we are in a unique position to make a positive difference. Esther seized her moment. Will we seize ours?

Certainly the Jews of Bad Segeberg seized their moment in 1936. Their celebration testified that they would not allow the Nazis to cow them.

Each time I stare at the photo I wonder: What befell these brave souls? How many – if any – survived Nazi tyranny and celebrated Purim in freedom at some later time?

Regardless, these brave celebrants are the lineal heirs of Vashti and Esther who placed pride and dignity over expediency and ease.

Few Jews remained in Bad Segeberg when the period of Nazi horror ended. The once proud synagogue in the city crumbled from disuse and was torn down in 1962.

But thanks in large measure to an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and the skill and determination of the community’s leader, Walter Blender, who saw to every detail of the construction of the community’s new Reform (and only) synagogue building, Mishkan HaTzafon, Jewish life is being revitalized in Bad Segeberg. Thanks are also due to the kindhearted support of the Christian community led by Pastors Ursula Sieg and Martin Pommerening who extended the hospitality of their church to the new Jewish community as it reformed.

Every time I climb the stairs to the sanctuary in Mishkan HaTzafon, I look into the 26 brave faces in the photo, and I wish I could thank each and every one.

I have no doubt that it is because of their courage and that of the other Jews of Bad Segeberg in 1936 that there is Jewish life – a thriving and God-willing growing Jewish life – in the city today. It is my hope that Mishkan HaTzafon will serve as an increasingly strong and bright beacon of Progressive Jewish life there for generations to come.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves is Biblical Narratives, a former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, CT. His book has been published in German; a Russian translation is forthcoming. It also is available as an audio book. A second book, ToraHighlights, will be published this fall.

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
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