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Notes from … the USA Luther and Anti-Semitism – commemorating the Reformation in New York, USA

Visit to the Central Synagogue in New York City. Left to right: Miriam Groß, Oberkirchenrat Dr. Martin Hauger, Director Dr. Wiliam Weitzer (Photo: Miriam Groß)

Everyday life in the megametropolis of New York is bound up with Yiddish expressions. Be it the bagel so often served with salmon and Philadelphia, the gelt that is paid for it, or the schlepp from one appointment to the next. Everyone, regardless of whether they are of Jewish origin or not, uses these and other terms as a matter of course in the everyday life of this hectic city, a city without parallel as a melting pot forging different nationalities into a unique new form.

New York is the world’s second largest Jewish city

Any visitor to New York quickly notices that he is in the world’s second-largest Jewish city; with more than 2.13 million Jews, some 16 per cent of the population, the city stands only behind Tel Aviv in this respect. After Manhattan’s Lower East Side became the quarter of choice for poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants from 1880 on, following several waves of German immigrants, life here was lived as in the old schtetl. Gradually the growing Jewish population spread to other districts too. To this day, these areas are characterised by vital and diverse aspects of Jewish life which have shaped the everyday lives of everyone.

Due to this Jewish influence, the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the megametropolis is an important aspect of mutual respect and understanding of Judaeo-Christian history. At the same time, New York’s history is deeply entwined with a series of waves of migration from Germany and with German traditions. Hence the memory of the German-speaking Church’s failure during the National Socialist era and the Nazi dictatorship is so deeply preserved in the hearts of families of Jewish and German descent here. In the year commemorating the Reformation it is thus particularly important to examine history in the light of Luther’s anti-Semitic statements.

Left to right: Oberkirchenrat Dr. Martin Hauger, Prof. Mark Silk, Director Dr. William Weitzer of the Leo Baeck Institute, Prof. Dean Bell (Photo: Miriam Groß)

German-American panel complements exhibition

Hence the German Evangelical-Lutheran Church of St. Paul teamed up with the Leo Baeck Institute and the German Consulate General to put together a German-American panel on the subject of “Luther and Anti-Semitism” in November 2016. While the renowned Morgan Library hosted the exhibition “Word and Image: Martin Luther's Reformation”, making its many visitors familiar with the Reformation in words and pictures, the American-German panel grappled with the problematic side to the great Reformer: while Oberkirchenrat Martin Hauger shed light on the developments and the critical distance the EKD has adopted to Luther’s anti-Semitic statements, Professor Dean P. Bell examined Luther’s impact and his anti-Semitism from a Jewish perspective.

The panel discussion that followed, chaired by Prof. Mark R. Silk, answered a wide range of questions from the audience. Discussing this controversial subject in the Jewish-influenced Big Apple meant examining an ambivalent aspect of the Reformation’s legacy – an examination that promoted healing and deepened ties. Reformatory thought can also take on this character of a conversation between religious communities seeking understanding and rapprochement and thus supporting roots.



Notes from One World

The anniversary of the Reformation is not a national, German or even a local event. Over the centuries, the Reformation has become a “citizen of the world”.