Germany is a country of about 81 million people — only about 230,000 of which are Jewish. As a consequence, most Germans have never met a Jewish person, despite the near omnipresence of the Holocaust in German public life.
The service, as described by the German publication Deutsche Welle, isn’t exactly as weird as the name implies. It’s basically a seminar service: Some organization hires Rent-a-Jew to put together a presentation (DW observed one such presentation in a school). Then Rent-a-Jew sends over some, er, Jews — mostly young volunteers — who talk to the assembled students about what being Jewish is actually like.
Okay, so it’s still a little weird. But weird in a way that speaks to how Germany, decades after the Holocaust, is struggling to sort out how to interact with the country’s small — but rapidly growing — Jewish minority.
“A lot of people want to be more than just the regular Jewish stereotypes in Germany, reduced to victims,” Alexander Rasumny, one of the organizers behind Rent-a-Jew, tells me. “A lot of people want to be seen in their own right.”
German Judaism after the Holocaust
The Holocaust essentially wiped out German Jewry. Of the roughly 565,000 Jews living in Germany in 1933, fully 94 percent — 528,000 people — were gone by 1950. A scant 37,000 Jewish people remained in what was once a hub of European Jewish life.
Germans spent much of the postwar years reckoning with the mass slaughter their government and family members had carried out. The German government paid out massive reparations to the Israeli government, and fashioned itself into the young Jewish state’s strongest ally in Europe.
But Germany had very few actual Jews left for its citizens to interact with. It conducted a massive public conversation about the Holocaust — one of the most remarkable national reckonings in human history. But this was largely a conversation between Gentiles about Jews, just by dint of sheer numbers.
Things changed when the Cold War ended. The fall of the Soviet Union also lifted restrictions on migration out of the Eastern Bloc. The result was a flow of people out of Eastern countries impoverished by communist rule, and into the prosperous more prosperous West.
For Jews, the newly reunified Germany was a particularly attractive destination. German immigration laws allowed anyone from the Soviet Union with a Jewish parent to immigrate, no questions asked — a kind of reparations for Germany’s past sins. By the time Germany tightened up its immigration laws, in 2004, roughly 200,000 new Jews had entered the country, mostly from Russia or other Eastern European countries. German Jewry had been reborn, though without many native-born Jews or Jews of German descent. In Berlin, for example, the Jewish population went from under 10,000 in 1990 to 50,000 by 2008.
Today, Germany’s Jewish community is the fastest-growing in the world.
This required some adjustments, for both the Jewish immigrants and the native-born Germans. The new Jewish community, with roots in other countries, didn’t define itself by the Holocaust. But native Germans couldn’t help but see the new Jews through the lens of the Holocaust, especially given that Jews were still less than 1 percent of the population and thus were not all that visible. Germans knew that Jews existed, but they didn’t know very much about how they actually lived.
The result is that in recent years, German Jewish institutions have made a concerted effort to introduce Jews, as people, to the broader community. The most famous of these stunts was a 2013 art exhibit, in Berlin’s Jewish Museum, which featured an empty glass box. Jews could sign up to sit in the box and answer questions from German museumgoers. The idea was to get them to see Jews as actual people rather than abstract victims.
In this context, Rent-a-Jew makes more sense — yes, even the provocative name. The goal is to bring attention to the ordinariness of Jews, to focus attention on regular Jewish life rather than to get them seen as just victims.
"We thought for quite a long time about it,” Rasumny says. “We thought that the best way to break the ice and get an open discussion would be to be as open as possible ... to embrace the irony within the situation.”
And, indeed, it has been quite provocative. Google “Rent-a-Jew,” and you’ll find a wealth of media coverage — way more than if they had named it, say, “German-Jewish Identity Project” or something similarly boring. The media attention since DW’s original article, according to Rasumny, has led to a spike in German Jews calling to volunteer their services for a seminar.
Now, the offensive cast of the name might end up discrediting these good intentions in the long run. But after observing the seminars and the reception among Germans, Gentile and Jewish alike, Rasumny is optimistic.
“The most important thing is that people get used to the idea of discussing things with Jews instead of only talking about Jews," he says. "In the seminars, it’s great: Once you accept the idea, you’re ready for hearing what we have to say.”