The New Synagogue in Berlin is by a very long shot my favourite. This is partly because I have attended a wedding and several Bar-Mitzvahs there, and have come to love the close community feel of the small congregation that still worships in the New Synagogue. But it is also because of the amazing building and sense of history you get from entering it.
The first impression you get of the synagogue is as you approach it along the busy Oranienburger Straße in the buzzing heart of Mitte. The gold dome glittering above the street and the impressive doors windows all shout out that the Jewish community in Berlin was comfortable and confident. The building, which was completed in 1866, is a splendid Moorish design, and was the largest in Germany at the time with space for 3,000 congregants. I often contrast this “loud-and-proud” reflection of Jewish identity in Berlin in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the much more modest, almost hidden buildings that Jews built for themselves in many other European cities.
The history of the building is also quite inspiring, not just because of the splendour with which it was built but because it also brought out the best in some people during Germany’s darkest period. Most memorably it survived the pogrom of November 1938 when synagogues were attacked and burned across Germany. The night has since become known as Kristallnacht because of all the glass in the streets of German cities after Jewish-owned shops had their windows smashed.
This building was also attacked along with many others, yet remarkably it survived because of the actions of one brave police officer, Lieutenant Otto Bellgardt. Lieutenant Otto arrived outside the synagogue while it was still under attack by a mob of local Nazis. He bravely pulled out his gun and confronted the mob, allowing firemen to put out the fire. The building was repaired and remained in use as a synagogue until 1940 when it was seized by the Army and used as a store-room. It was later badly damaged by allied bombers in November 1943.
The building was only restored in the early 1990s and although most of it now houses offices for the administration of the Jewish community, it has a large museum with a permanent and visiting exhibitions. It also houses a small working synagogue that hosts a Masorti service (in which women are allowed to take part fully).
Visiting the New Synagogue Berlin
You need to plan your visit as the New Synagogue is closed on Saturdays (the Jewish day of prayer). You can visit on on most other days between 10 am and 6 pm, though it also closes early on Friday.
The permanent exhibition deals mainly with the history of the building. You can also go up and look out of the dome on the roof for a view over Mitte.
You can find out more about the temporary exhibitions by clicking this link.
Attending a service at the New Synagogue in Berlin
Visiting Jews who wish to participate in a service and attend a Kiddush afterwards on a Saturday (or about once a month on a Friday night) are always welcomed by the community. Because security is very tight at the building it is best to send an e-mail in advance giving your names.
You can find the latest times of services by clicking this link and you can contact the Rabbi’s office by calling +49-30-88028-253