by Rabbi Rebecca Blady –
The Kreuzberg Kollel is an intensive Jewish learning initiative spearheaded by Base Berlin, a pillar of Hillel Deutschland. The Kollel is intended to deepen the textual experience and Jewish literacy of Europe’s emerging Jewish educators, professionals, and lay leaders. This intensive program, utilizing distance learning, allows for consistent and serious Jewish learning as a first step for many on their journey as Jewish educators.
The term “Kollel” typically paints a certain picture: Married men wearing black and white, poring over our great oral tradition through densely packed pages of Talmud, adding their voices to a nearly 2000 year old conversation. But a sense of ownership over this learning tradition has evolved since the founding of the first Kollel in 1877 in Lithuania. In 2021 in Berlin, a diverse group of young Jews with diverse identities sit and grapple with the original Talmud to embark on the courageous journey of Jewish text study.
The Kreuzberg Kollel is born of the belief that Jewish text – from the Torah, to the Talmud, to its commentaries and contemporary interpretations – is the true birthright of the Jewish people. The study of Jewish text has never truly been done in a vacuum. Yochanan ben Zakkai founded the academy at Yavneh; would he have done this had he not suffered a war and survived the destruction of the Temple? Maimonides wrote the Guide for the Perplexed; would he have done this if his brother had not died at sea, forcing him to live in great personal anguish? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s writings melded religious thought with modern politics; would this synthesis have been possible without the Zionist movement?
Our lives and our context matter. The innovation of the Kreuzberg Kollel is that it provides a European answer to traditional Torah study. We don’t simply want to know the text for literacy’s sake, though that is important, too. We want to feel the text, to understand how it might have emerged from real people and their lives, despite the myriad challenges they lived. We want to ask the tough questions: How might we understand what is a minhag for people who have reclaimed a tradition that has been lost in their families for multiple generations? How might we aspire toward rebuilding the Temple, taking into account our feelings on local, controversial rebuilding and repurposing projects of destroyed synagogues? How might we fulfill our obligation to erase the memory of Amalek when day after day so many of us are playing important roles as activists in the fight against right-wing extremist terror?
We are the vessels through which the text must travel in order to continue this ongoing conversation. In forming a Kollel, we refuse to abandon the tradition. At the same time, we open the doors of Torah study to all young Jews, especially those who are normally at the margins of Jewish life, including women, LGBTQ, patrilineal Jews; we bring their voices into the conversation with those in the Talmud and beyond. We do this because these people at the margins are the future teachers and educators of Jewish Europe. These are the people who will tell us what our tradition has to say about the life we live today, and build a world that is both accessible to their peers and rooted in tradition. And by offering a first step into the world of Jewish text study – real, intensive, community-oriented study – the Kollel constructs a pipeline for young Jews to become European Jewish educators. The Kreuzberg Kollel gives these individuals the tools to claim our heritage as their very own.