Jewish roots run deep here in this city situated some forty five minutes southwest of Berlin, where Stalin, Truman, and Churchill signed the Famous 1945 Potsdam agreement. But so does assimilation, and to combat that, Chabad has established a Jewish foothold, beginning with the founding of a new Jewish community school.
Once the former home of Albert Einstein, Kaiser Frederic’s palaces, and vacation villas of Germany’s high society, Potsdam was bereft of any Jewish educational institutions since before the war. So it was cause for real celebration when, in an official ceremony last week, Chabad of Potsdam, under the direction of Rabbi Nochum Pressman, inaugurated the first Ohr Avner-Chabad School.
Attending the ceremony were the mayor of Potsdam and the Minister of Education for the state of Brandenburg(Potsdam is the capital), who both pledged to “to help in the future with the continued growth and development of the elementary school.” Also present were guests from the organization of Duetsch-Israeli Partnership, and Chabad representatives from every locale in Germany. “The ceremony,” says Rabbi Pressman, “was a huge success in that it showed people that Chabad and Jewish life can take root and bring about real change in Potsdam.”
Potsdam is home to a Jewish population of struggling Russian immigrants who know very little about Judaism. More than a third of the city’s 900 Jews are registered members of the Jewish community, and with the opening of the new school, Chabad hopes to see that number rise.
“Assimilation is a serious factor in this city,” says Rabbi Pressman. “The opening of this school is thus a tremendous milestone for the future of Jewish life in Potsdam as it is only through educating our children and that we can hope to turn things around,” he says.
The Ohr Avner-Chabad School, underwritten by a grant from Mr. Lev Leviev, opened this September with a kindergarten class of four children which has since increased to eleven. The class taught by Israeli teachers Leah Blau and Geula Amitay, splits its time between Hebrew reading, prayer, and Jewish holidays and secular German subjects. The pre-school is located inside a larger state-approved German school building where the children join their German peers and teachers for secular studies before returning their private wing of the school building for Judaic activities.
The Potsdam city commission has plans to eventually build a Synagogue and community center for the Jewish community, but that could take seven to eight years according to Rabbi Pressman. The laws and building regulations are difficult to navigate, but Pressman is moving ahead with plans to build a Jewish life center in the near future.
Ohr Avner-Chabad School is just one of a plethora of programs offered by Chabad. Rabbi Pressman is the sole rabbi in town and is responsible for running prayer services, officiating at funerals, and organizing all Torah learning and holiday programming out of his family’s apartment and other various rented locations. The only kosher food available in Potsdam is at the small kosher grocery Rabbi Pressman opened for the community.
Now, with the opening of the Ohr Avner-Chabad Kindergarten which Rabbi Pressman anticipates will grow into a full fledged elementary school, Potsdam is ready for a burgeoning Jewish community.
Rema Berliner whose child attends the school admits her child has gained so much from the Jewish school experience, “When we sit down to eat my son teaches me that we must say a blessing and thank G-d before partaking of our food.”
Rabbi Pressman is gratified that the inauguration was covered by the local papers and television stations. “We want people to know there is a much larger network of Chabad and Jewish life outside of Potsdam which is available to them by becoming involved in our programs. We need to get the word out, that Jewish education is ultimately what we are all about.”