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Israeli ex-pats flocking to Berlin for the culture and the passport

BERLIN (JTA) — Aviv Russ stands behind a console with his headphones on and speaks into a large microphone. “We’re here: ‘Kol Berlin,’ the German-Israeli radio program. Shabbat shalom!” says Russ, 34, an Israeli expatriate.

Russ has been on the radio in Berlin nearly every Friday for about three years hosting an hour-long program in a melange of Hebrew and German that offers an often irreverent take on being Israeli in Germany.

The market for his program is growing.

Thousands of Israelis are living in Berlin, though nobody knows exactly how many. The German- Israel Society, which promotes ties between the two countries, puts the estimate at 8,000; the Israeli Embassy says it doesn’t keep any figures.

Aside from the Israelis, Berlin has an estimated 20,000 Jews, 11,000 of whom are officially registered with the Jewish community.

Many Israelis come to Berlin for the same reasons that young people all over flock to this city: It is Europe’s hippest capital, a magnet for young artists, musicians and writers from around the world.

But the Israelis also are coming to Germany because it’s a relatively easy country from which Jews can obtain a second passport: To be eligible, they must have a parent or grandparent who was persecuted by the Nazis. Once they have a German passport, they can live anywhere in Europe.

Some 100,000 Israelis currently hold a German passport, according to a report by Israeli sociologist Sima Zalcberg published last month in Israel’s Eretz Acheret magazine. About 7,000 people per year apply for citizenship at the German Embassy in Tel Aviv, she found. The Israeli presence in Berlin is palpable at nightclubs, artistic venues and Jewish social gatherings, and in Jewish schools.

“You just hear Hebrew really often today, and it would have been really exotic five years ago,” says Nirit Bialer, who works on youth exchange programs between Germany and Israel.

Five years ago, she says, “When I would tell people in Israel that I live in Berlin, people would say, ‘You live in Berlin? With those Nazis!?’ Now they say, ‘Oh, you’re living in Berlin? You are so lucky. I wish I could go. My neighbor was there, my cousin was there.’ ”

Compared to Tel Aviv, says Reinhold Robbe, president of the German-Israel Society, Berlin is “just as hip and just as alternative and multicultural, and Israelis get very comfortable here.” But Israelis also come here, he adds, “to get away from the stress of living in Israel.”

Where once there was little more than an e-mail newsletter for Israelis in Berlin — a kind of internal craigslist circulated by Berliner Ilan Weiss — now there also are Israeli Facebook groups for Berlin, popular “Meshuggah” dance parties for the city’s gay Israeli scene and now a Chabad-Lubavitch center opening in trendy east Berlin that plans to target Israelis for Jewish outreach. Bialer’s new project, a German-Israeli social program called Habayit, Hebrew for “the house,” is planning its second event: transforming a Berlin hangout on the Spree River into a Tel Aviv beach, complete with paddle ball, watermelon with goat cheese, and popsicles.

“Germany is very attractive now for Jews because Germans try very much to regain Jewish respect, which is of course impossible,” Bambi Sheleg, editor in chief of Eretz Acheret, tells JTA in a telephone interview. “Berlin is very attractive because it is an international city, and Jews have long, ancient roots in Germany.” Sheleg, whose parents both came from prewar Germany, acknowledged that the pursuit of German citizenship by so many Israelis is also kind of weird for her.

“I have been to Germany and actually I speak a good German,” she says. “But my parents would not go back there, and I would not take a German passport.”

Germany and Israel have had strong ties since West Germany established diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in 1965. But Germany’s postwar Jewish population remained below 30,000 until the fall of the Soviet Union. Since 1990, more than 200,000 Jews or members of Jewish families have immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union.

In 2004, more former Soviet Jews immigrated to Germany than to Israel — a fact that distressed the Israeli government, which pressed Germany to establish stricter rules governing who could immigrate to Germany. In recent years, Jewish immigration to Germany from the former Soviet Union has dried up. But the Israelis keep coming. Bambinim, a Jewish kindergarten run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is like a mini-Israel. Israeli parents socialize in the building, and their children practice speaking Hebrew together.

“The children will grow up knowing who they are,” says Sabina Alkanaev, 23, an Israeli volunteer who came to Germany for the year.

There are many mixed German-Israeli families at the kindergarten. Some of the Israeli spouses miss Israel, Alkanaev said.

Alkanaev understands why the parents like Germany — “It is certainly a calm place to raise children,” she said. And she has had a great time, too. “I go and hear Israeli musicians, see work by alternative artists and photographers and dancers. They all represent Israel here, and that makes me happy.”

But, Alkanaev says, she looks forward to returning to Israel in the fall.

“I cannot fight it; Israel calls me back,” she said. “It is who I am.”

In the “Kol Berlin” studio, Russ talks to guests Hila Golan and Ariel Nil Levy, an Israeli actor-producer couple whose show, “Minute of Silence,” opened last month at Berlin’s Thikwa Theater.

With four actors and three stages, the show explores German and Israeli ways of confronting the Holocaust, examining national identity in the topsy-turvy world of Israelis in the land of the perpetrator.

“Israelis are not afraid to learn the German language anymore,” Levy says. “The Goethe Institute courses in Tel Aviv are full.”

“Was it difficult to give up your identity?” Russ asks Levy, who recently became a German citizen.

“Well, the ceremony was terrible,” Levy answers. “The mayor said, ‘You now belong to a large family of 82 million.’ ”

“So you are not Israeli anymore?” Aviv asks.

“Well, you cannot give that up. I carry my Israeli identity with me,” Levy says.

“So it seems,” Aviv says, “you stay who you are.”

“My parents really miss me, but they really support me,” Golan says after the broadcast. “For them, the answer is my answer: They see the connection I have with Germany, and that I am trying to change how we think about Germany.

“But can I leave my Israeli identity? I don’t think so.”