A Rebirth in Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Uilenburger Synagogue is set back from the street, behind a gate and a cobblestone courtyard. At the entrance to the synagogue, a banner painted with a bright rainbow reads ledereen welkom. Everyone is welcome.

This is the new home of Beit HaChidush, House of Rebirth, Amsterdam’s newest Jewish congregation. Wanya Kruyer, an Amsterdam visual artist and Beit HaChidush’s co-founder, says of the Uilenburger, “After the war it was an empty building, symbolic for destruction. No more Jews, a synagogue and simcha place without bima, chairs, just empty.” That the House of Rebirth is celebrating the Jewish holidays here is not lost on anyone.

Ten years ago, Beit HaChidush began as an informal gathering in borrowed space. One Shabbat per month, participants took turns leading services out of a praycrbook that Kruyer and some friends had photocopied. Many attending didn’t know Hebrew and weren’t familiar with Jewish traditions. Some hadn’t even known they were Jewish. Kruyer says Dutch Holocaust survivors tended either to insulate themselves within Holland’s observant Jewish community or abandon Judaism entirely. “Most people, I think even today, would say that there’s no real Jewish life [in Europe] anymore,” says Beit HaChidush’s rabbi, Elisa Klapheck. “We are all children of survivors [It] is very hard to have a relationship with God when your parents have been to Auschwitz.” But little by little, the visionaries among the children of survivors began to rebuild. “People like Wanya and me started to say no— Jewish life is possible,” says Klapheck. “We have to step out of the shadow [of the Shoa, the Holocaust] and build up something new.” Beit HaChidush was born of that vision.

A feminist scholar and longtime leader of the Jewish community in her hometown of Berlin, Klapheck joined Beit HaChidush as its first rabbi, in May of 2005. Last summer the congregation hosted the first of what it hopes will become an annual Queer Shabbaton. Under the congregation’s chuppah, Klapheck performed the Netherlands’ first interfaith wedding. “Judaism has to be joyful,” says Klapheck, and she says that one of the congregation’s goals is “to make a way back to Judaism which works.”

“We have looked westwards for inspiration,” drawing from “the intellectual/spiritual Reconstructionists or Jewish feminism in the U.S.,” co-founder Kruyer explained to the artist commissioned to design Beit HaChidush’s new ark and Torah ornaments. At the same time, she said, “we see ourselves strongly as part of the European Jewish reality… .This has consequences for our mishkan, our Aron HaKodesh. Should it face east as the tradition tells us, or west as well? Or, maybe to all four directions, to emphasize the many diasporas, the many centers, of contemporary Jewish life.”