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Christmas tree on Pariser Platz with the illuminated Brandenburg Gate in the background

“He may not celebrate Christmas, but he’s still the #1 Advent hero”

A Somewhat Peculiar Honor for the “Shalom Rollberg” Initiative

Christian Christmas, a Jewish Israeli, and Muslim children from Neukölln. This combination clearly appealed to Berlin’s largest tabloid and an energy supply company when they were recently conducting their annual search for an “Advent hero.” (In the Christian tradition, Advent is the month-long period leading up to Christmas.) For the sixth time, they were looking for a Berliner engaged in volunteer work to honor. They selected Itay Novik, who is forty-five, was born in Tel Aviv, has lived in Berlin since 2011, and just so happens to be my boyfriend.

Itay’s Volunteer Work at Shalom Rollberg

For five years now, he has been volunteering in his neighborhood of Neukölln – branded a “flashpoint district” – for the Shalom Rollberg initiative. He is just one of many Jewish volunteers who tutor the local children and teens, who are mostly of Turkish or Arab descent, or organize recreational activities for them. The project is under the umbrella of the MORUS 14 club, which nominated Itay to represent all the mentors as an “Advent hero.”

Shalom Rollberg

More about the project on the website of the Morus 14 club (in German).
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“Shalom Rollberg wouldn’t be anything without the young people of Neukölln who come every week and are, if you ask me, ambassadors of transformation.”

Itay gives English lessons once a week. But now and then he also devises an extracurricular activity to mix it up. Because food and the culinary arts are both his passion and his profession, he has prepared various recipes with the kids, from Christmas cookies to kreplach, a traditional Ashkenazi-Jewish dish that his grandmother, who was born in Poland, introduced him to as a child. Another highlight for the kids was when he organized a cooking class with them at a fancy restaurant whose Michelin-starred Israeli chef is a friend of his.

At these weekly gatherings, the fact that Itay is Israeli and Jewish is immaterial. It is not a secret, but neither is much fuss made about it. One of the girls only realized this after a few weeks and, surpised, asked him out of the blue: “Are you from Israel?” Another girl cut in, “Yeah, yeah, he’s Israeli. Can we move on now?!” But the significance Itay gives this little episode shows that the setup creates an atmosphere of normalcy despite the unusual circumstances.

Man smiling at the camera, holding a check for 5,000 euros

For a good cause: Itay holding the symbolic check for a donation to Shalom Rollberg, Berlin, 29 November 2020; photo: Jörg Waßmer

Chosen as “Advent Hero”

Shalom Rollberg then informed Itay that he had been selected by the tabloid and the energy supply company as their “Advent Hero” – and that the club had won a 5,000 € donation as a result. This was followed by an interview in the press, a photo shoot on the initiative’s premises – without the children, of course, due to the coronavirus. The following day, the newspaper ran an article headlined “He may not celebrate Christmas, but he’s still the #1 Advent hero” For the first time in my life, I bought a copy of that tabloid. Of all newspapers, I thought to myself. Itay was less bothered about that. We chuckled together at the headline.

The said article

Online version, dated 28 Nov 2020 (in German)
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Itay was notified that on Sunday, 29 November, he would be symbolically handed a check and invited to perform his duty as “Advent hero:” switching on the lights of the 15 meter tall Christmas tree on the plaza in front of the Brandenburg Gate. A Christmas tree of all things, I thought to myself. Even I steer clear of Christmas markets and holiday hype. And in front of the Brandenburg Gate, of all places! I am still a fan of the artist Horst Hoheisel’s proposal, back in 1995, of grinding down this German national landmark into dust and then scattering said dust on the plot where the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe now stands. But of course, in the end, I accompanied Itay for the occasion. Somebody had to take pictures, after all.

Berlin Torlos – The Brandenburg Gate an Empty Space

Interview with Horst Hoheisel on his project (in German)
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Christmas tree on Pariser Platz with the illuminated Brandenburg Gate in the background

A bit blurry from excitement: The Christmas tree lights are switched on, their radiance competing with the Brandenburg Gate for attention; Berlin, 29 November 2020; photo: Jörg Waßmer

Reactions from Itay’s Family in Israel

Meanwhile, his family in Israel was elated – and not only after the Israeli TV news picked up the story. His mother, who was born in 1948 at a DP camp in Kassel to two Polish Shoah survivors, grew very emotional and posted on Facebook about how proud she was of the man her son had grown into:

ערכי ואוהב ללא קשר לדת ומוצא

(Values and love, regardless of religion or background).

It must have felt peculiar to her, given that Germans had murdered her parents’ families during the Shoah.

“Values and love, regardless of religion or background”

Itay is not uninterested in this story, but it holds much less significance to him than it does to me. I was also the one who took the initiative a few years ago on our visit to the former Jägerkaserne military base in Kassel, where his mother spend the first year of her life before her parents emigrated with her to the newly founded State of Israel. On the same trip, we’d also stopped in the Hessian town of Ziegenhain, where Itay’s grandparents had met and married at a DP camp. At the Arolsen Archives – to his family’s surprise – I found documents furnishing evidence of his grandparents’ time in the DP camp and her efforts to obtain reparations (Wiedergutmachung).

In tracking them down, I naturally benefited from my familiarity with archival research obtained during my work at the Archive of the Jewish Museum Berlin. The fact that my boyfriend is a (secular) Jewish Israeli is not irrelevant to my profession. Obviously, it’s not why we fell in love. And my relationship with him does not justify my role as a non-Jew working for a Jewish Museum. But it does forge a present-day connection and build a bridge to my daily life and my own lived reality – even though Itay – the Advent hero who doesn’t celebrate Christmas – actually doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah either! It would never occur to him to go to Pariser Platz for the Hanukkah candle lighting.

The Brief Ceremony

Back to the little event at the Brandenburg Gate. The check was quickly handed over and the lights switched on. Because of the pandemic, there was no audience. It was just a brief press opportunity. Itay, who had no idea what to expect but did not want to be caught off guard, had written a short statement just in case. He wouldn’t have been comfortable giving a speech in German on the spur of the moment. In the end, he was not put in the position of having to speak, which was quite a relief to him. His statement would have ended with these words:

“Shalom Rollberg wouldn’t be anything without the young people of Neukölln who come every week and are, if you ask me, ambassadors of transformation. All children deserve opportunities to experiment, to dream, to fulfill themselves. And they also deserve to have someone who believes in them. Isra, Dana, Sabrina, Shirin, Lina, Bathul, Sara, Abdul Karim and all the others who I haven’t listed by name. Without you I wouldn’t be standing here. I learn so much from you when I teach you, and you are all stars and my heroes.”

Jörg Waßmer, Archive

A man with a dog on Pariser Platz in Berlin

Relieved after all the fuss: Itay with his dog Lila in front of the lit-up Christmas Tree at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 29 November 2020; photo: Jörg Waßmer

Citation recommendation:

Jörg Waßmer (2020), “He may not celebrate Christmas, but he’s still the #1 Advent hero”. A Somewhat Peculiar Honor for the “Shalom Rollberg” Initiative.

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