BERLIN — When American Rabbi Joshua Spinner moved to Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood a decade ago, there were no other Jews to be seen.
Now when the sun sets on a Friday night, dozens of Jewish men clad in traditional Shabbat garb with big black hats and dark long coats walk down the streets past hip coffee shops, chic boutiques and tiny art galleries to attend services at Rykestrasse synagogue.
"When my wife and I arrived here in 2000, we were the only Jews around. There was nobody to invite for Shabbat dinner," the rabbi recalled over a cappuccino at kosher Cafe Rado, just down the street from the Jewish kindergarten.
He's in the middle of a thriving orthodox Lauder Yeshurun community of young immigrants mostly from the former Soviet Union. Members say its believers are more actively celebrating their faith than their oppressed parents and grandparents and moving forward from the traumatic past of Judaism in the country.
There are about 200 believers now and it's growing fast: There are several weddings a year and the nursery school has become so overcrowded that parents have to register their children soon after birth if they want to get one of the coveted spots.
Spinner, 39, who was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in Canada, speaks fluent Russian and good German, as well. He helped build the tightly knit community in Prenzlauer Berg and is also the vice president for the American Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which supports the Yeshurun community financially and is committed to rebuilding Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe that was destroyed in the Holocaust.
Unlike many Jewish institutions elsewhere in Germany where the focus is on the past, members say Yeshurun is firmly rooted in the present and focused on the future.
"In many other Jewish places in Germany, there's a sadness, it's all about the past," said Rabbi David Rose, the director of the congregation's yeshiva where young men study Judaism's traditional texts. "Here we have a lot of students, it's all very alive."
Most members are in their 20s and 30s and among more than 200,000 ex-Soviet Jews who were let into the country after the German government relaxed immigration laws for Jews following reunification in 1990
Genia Novominska was 10 years old when her family left Kiev, Ukraine, for Germany.
"For my parents' generation Judaism did not exist," said Novominska, now 22 and one of 20 students at the Yeshurun community's midrasha, or institute of Jewish studies for women. "Under communism they would have gone to prison just for lighting the candles on Shabbat."
Novominska, however, was curious to find out more about her Jewish roots and as a teenager attended an introductory weekend seminar by the Lauder Foundation. The seminars are held regularly in several German cities.
Active recruiting, matchmaking"First I stopped eating pork, then I became more and more observant of Jewish rules and now I'm recruiting Jewish girls for Lauder myself," Novominska said. While her parents remain secular, she said they did not mind their daughter's growing spirituality.
On a recent Saturday morning, Novominska led a group of visiting Jewish girls from all over Germany to the morning prayer at Rykestrasse synagogue and then introduced them to typical Shabbat dishes like from hamin, a long-simmered stew with beef, hard-boiled eggs, beans and potatoes, and kugel, a casserole made from sliced potatoes.
Active recruiting among young Eastern European Jewish immigrants is one of the secrets for Yeshurun's success and fast-growing membership. The other one involves matchmaking between the yeshiva's boys and the girls from the midrasha, which was originally in Frankfurt in west Germany before it moved to Berlin in 2006.
"The move was totally deliberate and it worked out," Spinner said. "We had 13 weddings in the first year after the girl's midrasha moved to Berlin."
Today, Berlin's Yeshurun community has become a center for orthodox Jewish life and learning in Germany. It boasts a rabbinical seminar, a yeshiva for boys, a midrasha for girls, a kindergarten, an elementary school and an entire economic network that has popped up to serve them, including a kosher grocery, a cafe and a bakery.
"It's just like a shtetl inside Berlin," said Novominska, referring to Jewish small town culture in 19th century Eastern Europe.
On a regular weekday morning, between 30 to 35 male students attend the yeshiva, reading and discussing the Talmud as they sit in the community center's study room, heads covered with yarmulkes. Two young men from the seminar were ordained as rabbis last year and six more are on track for ordination until 2012.
According to experts' studies, about 10 percent of the second generation of Jewish immigrants have turned to orthodox Judaism.
"There's a trend, you can see it in Israel as well, that Eastern European Jews, if they return to their roots, they do it all the way and very thoroughly," said Olaf Gloeckner from the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam.
24-hour police guardsOlga Afanasev, who emigrated from Kiev at age 15 and now heads the full-time program at the girls' midrasha, even noticed "a whole wave of adolescents who are now becoming religious."
The number of religious and secular Jews is still a far cry from Germany's flourishing Jewish community of 560,000 — and its cultural and intellectual prominence — before the Third Reich. Some 6 million European Jews were killed in the Nazi genocide, including 200,000 from Germany.
Today, around 250,000 Jews live in Germany. Berlin has the country's biggest Jewish community with 11,000 registered religious community members and 10 synagogues. Experts estimate between 20,000 to 30,000 Jews, including Americans and Israelis, live in the German capital.
All Jewish institutions have 24-hour police guards and metal barriers, and Spinner has asked the congregation's men to hide their kippas with baseball caps when they're outside.
"Our goal is not to prove that Prenzlauer Berg is a Jewish neighborhood," said Spinner. "We want Jewish life to become normal and it will become normal again just by us living it."