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Berlin offers kosher lifestyle for Jews

When Rabbi Yitshak Ehrenberg moved to Berlin some 15 years ago, he found it almost impossible to keep a kosher lifestyle.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Rabbi Yitshak Ehrenberg moved to Berlin some 15 years ago, he found it almost impossible to keep a kosher lifestyle.

There were barely any grocery stores offering food prepared in accordance to Jewish dietary law, no hotels catering to the needs of devout customers on Shabat and no kosher catering services capable of hosting big community celebrations.

When Ehrenberg was invited to a Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony, he would often bring his own food just to make sure he wasn't eating any non-kosher dishes.

But today kosher food is more and more widely available — even in non-Jewish stores — in another sign that Berlin's Jewish community is thriving some 70 years after it was obliterated by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

"Now everyone can live a glatt kosher life in Berlin," the Orthodox rabbi said proudly. "And it is affordable too."

That, to no small degree, is to Ehrenberg's own credit. He oversees the preparation of much of the kosher food in the German capital and beyond, gives out "Kashrut" certificates that mark food as safely kosher and encourages big and small food businesses to apply for the coveted stamp.

"The Jewishness has become very strong again in Berlin," Ehrenberg, who is originally from Jerusalem, told The Associated Press. "A lot of young people are finding their way back to religion and the city is still one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world."

While the Berlin Jewish community has some 10,000 officially registered members, experts estimate that around 50,000 Jews call the city their home. That's still a far cry from the 120,000 Jews who lived in Berlin before the Nazis came to power in 1933 or today's flourishing diaspora communities of New York, Toronto or London.

The increasing availability of kosher food is part of an overall resurgence of Jewish life due largely to the influx of some 200,000 ex-Soviet Jews who were let into the country after the German government relaxed immigration laws for Jews following reunification in 1990.

Berlin has also become a magnet of sorts for many young Israelis, with unofficial estimates suggesting that 10,000 to 15,000 have moved here in the last few years.

Jewish kindergartens, elementary schools and religious schools — a yeshiva for boys and a midrasha for girls — have sprung up across Berlin as well as Hebrew language schools, and Israeli or Russian food businesses that cater to the growing and diverse demands of the Jewish community.

Just last month, the upscale grocery store "Nah und Gut" — "Close and Good" — in Berlin's Wilmersdorf neighborhood opened a kosher section with some 300 products including fresh beef from Poland, dairy products from France, two kinds of canned gefilte fish, soup powder, instant coffee and halva-filled cookies from Israel. Two big signs above the entrance advertise both fresh-baked suckling pig and fresh original bagels, appealing to both Jews and non-Jews.

"The whole point is to have normalcy again, normal prices, normal opening hours — a neighborhood store where you can get a lot of good things," Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal of the Chabad Lubavitch community, who supervises the kosher section of the supermarket, said in an interview earlier this week.

Beyond the basics, there are now also kosher bakeries — offering Challah, the braided bread for Shabat — cafes, several catering services and a few restaurants — including one that even prepares kosher sushi. There's also a hotel, the Crowne Plaza, which offers rooms that can be used in accordance with strict rules observed by Orthodox and some Conservative Jews on Shabat, the Jewish day of rest, and which will soon open a full kosher hotel kitchen.

The next step, according to Rabbi Ehrenberg, is to also entice non-Jews to buy kosher products.

"In America, a lot of health-conscious people buy kosher because they know it undergoes strict controls, not just in a religious but also in a hygienic way," Ehrenberg said.

"It is my dream that at some point even popular German brands like Ritter Sport or Storck chocolate will print the kosher stamp they received from me well-visibly on the packages — not just for export to Israel, but also when they sell it in Germany."