In this issue we visit three individuals working to reduce barriers in the Jewish community to help strengthen, enhance and revitalize the Jewish experience for all.


“Being a Jew means being part of a community that shares a purpose and shares a belief. It is about more than simply a framework that is keeping us together. It is about shaping and maintaining a community and creating a home.”


Building Bridges
in Berlin

In the southern central Berlin districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln, nations, languages, and cultures brush up against one other. For generations, these neighborhoods have housed migrant communities, particularly Turkish, Arab, and Kurd. Today, however, Kreuzberg and Neukölln’s low rents and counter-cultural image have made them attractive to English-speaking newcomers. Writing in The Awl, Rebecca Schuman pointedly termed this part of Berlin “ExpatVania,” home to countless British and American “under-the-table tour guides, podcasters, conceptual artists.”

Amid this multicultural transformation, by a bend in the Landwehr Canal, stands Fraenkelufer Synagogue — or rather, what remains of it. The main structure, once decorated with medieval and baroque adornments, was set ablaze on Kristallnacht in November 1938, prior to its destruction by aerial bombardment in 1944. What was originally the synagogue for young people adjacent to the main hall survived, though, and was re-consecrated by Holocaust survivors after the war. In recent years, the synagogue has experienced something of a revival, due to the work of a small but enterprising band of volunteers with a vision for Fraenkelufer’s future.

Nina Peretz, Chairperson of the Friends of Fraenkelufer, first started attending services at the Kreuzberg synagogue with her Israeli husband, Dekel, prior to her conversion to Judaism in 2011. That conversion was a most natural thing, as Peretz described it to me, coming out of her experiences of being with Dekel’s family, becoming intrigued by Jewish culture and religion, and learning Hebrew to the point of fluency. Together, they “created a shared Judaism,” though as a Jew-by-choice she thinks she “sometimes has a more critical approach” to things. “I ask more questions. Nothing is taken for granted.”

Peretz, who moved to Berlin from southern Germany when she was 21 to continue her studies in languages and business administration, lived with her husband in the vicinity of Fraenkelufer and likely wouldn’t have gone there were it not for its convenience. On first look, the synagogue wasn’t very welcoming, and the community’s size was rather diminished. Over successive visits, however, “we realized how wonderful this synagogue was and that here was an opportunity to create a community” given its catchment area. Peretz said she began to feel some sense of responsibility for the synagogue’s future, for without new members, there “was a certain threat that the synagogue might not exist anymore.”

This wish to revive a community derives, in part, from Peretz’s conception of what it means to be a Jew in Berlin today. While it was and is important to have a religious context to her life, Peretz also believes “being a Jew means being part of a community that shares a purpose and shares a belief. It is about more than simply a framework that is keeping us together. It is about shaping and maintaining a community and creating a home.” That Fraenkelufer is an all-volunteer community adds to this, for “having a community based on volunteers means you are asking people to do something instead of demanding something of them. People are active because they really want to do it.”

Though it receives little official support, today Fraenkelufer is one of the most active and best known synagogues in Berlin. The revived Fraenkelufer is Orthodox but balances tradition with openness. Men and women sit separately during services but without the obstruction of a mechitza; the rabbi and chazan are male but roles are also available to women to participate in religious life. At once, it is important to Peretz that the synagogue is open to everyone, including mixed Jewish and non-Jewish couples, non-religious Jews, and the LGBTQ Jewish community in Berlin.

“Living together in the same neighborhood as Muslims and Arabs is challenging and interesting,” Peretz said of Fraenkelufer’s unique location. Ever since the summer of 2015, when Germany took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, Fraenkelufer has attempted to counter the prevailing narrative within Berlin’s Jewish community that by closing the gates, you can isolate and protect yourself at a time of risk. On the contrary, Peretz believes it is important to go into refugee shelters “and show them and the world that Jews are just like any other people who live here, that Jews are part of German society. I believe this was the right way to act. We have to make the best of this situation. It is about not being afraid.”

Having gained recognition from the German state as a nonprofit organization in 2015, Fraenkelufer celebrated its centenary in 2016 while continuing to grow and change with its congregants, establishing more programming for families as its young couples have their first children. Its next big project, aside from making plans for the holidays, is to raise $10,000 in order to keep and preserve an exhibition of photographs taken by Robert Capa at Fraenkelufer Synagogue in September 1945 of the very first Rosh Hashanah service in Berlin after the Second World War.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a silence” at Fraenkelufer, Peretz said. Now she feels “as if we have restarted a community.” 

“Essentially, LivLuv is about enabling and empowering people to take control and ownership of their own Jewish identity,” Bloom said, “to be who they want to be and discover how they want to express that.”


A Focus on Accessibility

S hoshana Bloom has worked in the British Jewish community since she graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2003, at organizations ranging from the United Jewish Israel Appeal to Britain’s Holocaust Centre. Over time, Bloom increasingly became aware of a part of the community that was, either intentionally or unintentionally, marginalized or excluded from the mainstream of Jewish life: those with intellectual cognitive-development disabilities. Today, Bloom works to correct that injustice.

“A lot of organizations may think they are accessible because they understand that to mean physically accessible: whether people can get into the building or use the bathroom,” Bloom explained to me. “But a lot of the time, those organizations aren’t thinking educationally: about making their materials and resources accessible, their communication methods, the language of their marketing. These things are not written in a way that is accessible for people with intellectual disabilities.”

“We need to also be looking at content,” Bloom said, and indeed, content was the main issue when Bloom reviewed practices at Limmud, one of Britain’s major events dedicated to Jewish learning and culture. Bloom has twice chaired Limmud, and in 2011, “one of my priorities was: How can we make Limmud more accessible? We were looking at the program and how to present it in a different way, to encourage presenters to be more accessible, and to increase opportunities for volunteering” for people with intellectual disabilities.

With this in mind, Bloom founded and chairs Limmud L’Am to open the Limmud experience to people with intellectual disabilities. The aim of Limmud L’Am was not to create a kind of segregation. Visitors to Limmud in 2011 likely wouldn’t have noticed any differences at the conference, save perhaps for greater visibility of people with intellectual disabilities. Rather, in making a series of discreet changes to the program, such as including more introductory sessions or sessions that might involve crafts or music, the idea simply was to make the entire conference more inclusive and pluralistic, creating further opportunities for learning in a variety of styles.

All of this has led up to her newest endeavor: LivLuv. From the Hebrew word “to blossom,” LivLuv aims to empower Jewish people with intellectual disabilities to take control of their Jewish identity. While LivLuv is still in an embryonic stage at the moment in terms of getting its organization set up, Bloom explained that LivLuv will bring together different components of her work under one banner.

With LivLuv, Bloom will “write and create accessible resources on different aspects of Jewish life” so people are “able to find out a little more and make informed decisions about what they want to do or go on to access across the Jewish spectrum.” In this respect, she advocates for no particular strand of or approach to Judaism, since the ethos of LivLuv is to empower the individual, acting as a gateway to a scope of information, in a variety of accessible formats.

Another critical part of LivLuv’s work, Bloom explained, will be leadership development, “creating leaders within these communities to become change makers.” Therefore, instead of Bloom being the advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, perpetuating the problem of disabled persons being voiceless, she will defer to being their ally. “Once people are aware of the issue, [they] are very interested in making their communities more accessible and inclusive, to ensure there are no walls.” This cuts across the religious spectrum — inclusiveness in this sense is not associated with one particular movement. Generally, there is a recognition that “we need to change in order to become a more fair, inclusive, and equal community.”

“Essentially, LivLuv is about enabling and empowering people to take control and ownership of their own Jewish identity,” Bloom said, “to be who they want to be and discover how they want to express that.”

For Bloom, her work with Jews with intellectual disabilities is not a personal matter. “People often assume that I have a family member” with an intellectual disability, she said, “but this is not the case.” Neither does Bloom frame this as a chesed (kindness) project or a mitzvah (good deed), for i nclusion “is not something we should do because ‘it’s a nice thing,’” she said. Rather, her involvement “comes from becoming aware of equal rights and human rights issues. Anyone should have the option of celebrating their Jewish identity.” 

‘‘This is all a little bit of us playing with this idea of what if there was a daily 10- or 30-minute virtual Jewish afterschool program for elementary school kids not going to day or Hebrew school.’’


Making Quality Time Online

When Sarah Lefton was growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, she yearned for the sort of ancient yet modern, educational yet creative Jewish content she would later create with BimBam.

“I grew up in a very small Jewish community in the south, a one-synagogue town in the Bible Belt. I had the best Jewish education on offer. I went to Hebrew school on Wednesdays and Saturdays, I had my Bat Mitzvah and my confirmation in the Reform movement, I went to summer camp,” she explained to me. But after college, Lefton found herself living in New York City and discovered, after falling in with a crowd of people who had a very different sort of childhood from hers — informed by Jewish day schools and gap years in Israel — that she was essentially, in her own words, “functionally illiterate.”

Thus in her early twenties, Lefton took to devouring all the Jewish information she could get her hands on, including online material in the early days of the internet. At the same time, she was beginning her career in education and digital media at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, going on to produce projects for The New York Times on the Web, The Village Voice, Princess Cruises and several children’s toy brands.

These two strands of Lefton’s life would meet, eleven years ago now, with the creation of BimBam (originally called G-dcast). What began as a labor of love snowballed over the years to the point where BimBam is now an established nonprofit media studio that creates and distributes fun, accessible, and smart digital media about Judaism for kids, adults, and families who want to spend quality time online. Lefton sees BimBam’s role as expanding the conversation about Judaism — a kind of onramp for the Judaically curious, taking people from a place of zero or minimal knowledge to wherever they need to go.

Indeed, in the beginning, creating the content for BimBam formed part of Lefton’s education, too. She was teaching herself as much as she was instructing others. “I’m actually very transparent about the fact that I think everyone should have the experience I had, to be able to animate the parshah week by week. I couldn’t write it so I reached out to rabbis and educators whom I respected and found them all amazingly interested in collaborating on the project. I worked on the sound and visual production. It was an incredible education.”

BimBam is based in Oakland, California, where Lefton now resides. She has been involved in countless other initiatives in California. After leaving the world of corporate tech, she joined northern California’s independent Jewish summer camp, Camp Tawonga, as its marketing director for four years. She has also been the president of San Francisco’s pluralist Mission Minyan, a board member of the San Francisco JCC, and a founder of the entrepreneurial project Jewish Fashion Conspiracy.

But it is BimBam that consumes Lefton today. Over time, the project has found its audience, in part because Lefton was able to utilize her experience in telecommunications but also because it was producing content that, in her gut, she knew to be at once exciting and valuable. One noteworthy example is Shaboom!, an animated series centered around two magical “sparks,” Gabi and Rafael, who live in a playhouse in the clouds. As these characters learn about fixing the world, each short episode imparts a certain lesson or value such as gratitude and altruism along with Jewish knowledge like Hebrew words and songs.

“If we could turn the screen off and do something else, we would,” Lefton told me, when I asked whether encouraging children to have even more screen time was the best thing for them. Her proposition is that if kids are going to be in front of a screen for an average of an hour and fifty minutes a day, why not try and make twenty minutes of that time meaningful and educational? YouTube contains a lot of garbage, Lefton said, but it can also be an amazing forum for imparting knowledge, be it about arts and crafts, cookery, or Judaism.

As BimBam grows and evolves, Lefton and her team continue to play with form and content, from a follow-along video where the end result will be a homemade mezuzah constructed from paper to the holiday of Sukkot as explained with Lego stop-motion animation. “This is all a little bit of us playing with this idea of what if there was a daily 10- or 30-minute virtual Jewish afterschool program for elementary school kids not going to day or Hebrew school,” she told me enthusiastically.“This has been a personal dream of mine,” Lefton said, and through BimBam, “I can see it coming true.” 

Liam Hoare is a contributor to Moment and writes frequently for The Forward, Tablet, and Slate. He is based in the United Kingdom and is a graduate of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.