Sunday, May 28, 2017

Back to Berlin; Discovering Denmark


I arrived back in Budapest this past Thursday, after having spent the last week outside of Budapest. It was an incredible week split between Berlin, Germany and Copenhagen, Denmark.

I had been to Berlin six months earlier (and obviously blogged about it, link attached), but I had the privilege of returning in beautiful weather for the Junction Annual Convention. Junction is a JDC program that seeks to engage and build networks for European Jewish young adults in their 20s and 30s. Most importantly, my roommate/wife* Sam is a full-time member of the Junction team, through the same JDC Fellowship that I'm on. While all other fellows work locally with communities, Sam gets to be part of this cool project that works across Europe.

*Not actually, people, calm down

A small group spent a night out at the Berlin TV tower, whose glow you can see behind us

I have wanted all year to get the chance to see Sam in action and experience the Junction community, and I finally got the opportunity. I was invited to facilitate some ritual elements of the weekend, including leading a Kabbalat Shabbat service and some Friday night niggunim. It meant a lot to me to have the chance to be in front of a crowd in this capacity, and even though I have led Kabbalat Shabbat a number of times, it was a very different environment and audience than I'm used to. Still, it went well, and I felt happy to be facilitating a tefillah experience for people who come from what must have been 10+ different countries.

The entire convention was tremendously inspiring and interesting. Over 150+ attendees from throughout Europe (spanning geographically from Portugal in the west to Russia in the east) came together to reflect on the theme for the weekend: Our world in transition. Speakers including academics, clergy, media professionals, and more led amazing sessions. I heard from Michael Miller, an American professor who teaches at Central European University and started the Jewish studies department there, Jonathan Schorsch, an American professor teaching in Berlin and also the brother of Rebecca Schorsch, my high school teacher, Abby Stein, a young woman living in New York who was born a male in ultra-Orthodox society and has since left and created a new life and identity for herself, and a writer originally from Glencoe, Illinois (right next to my hometown) who works in France, often writing for Charlie Hebdo. All of the speakers were interesting, and the chance to reflect in the hallway or at meals with other people or with the speakers themselves was quite exciting.

I left the conference feeling energized and excited about the new friendships I forged, and the knowledge I gleaned.

S/O to Sam for being #1 wife and helping plan such an awesome convention!!


From Berlin, I flew directly to Copenhagen, Denmark. There is a JDC Fellow, Becca, who lives there with Shva, a shlicha, whom I met at BBYO IC in Dallas. I was so happy to stay with these awesome ladies in what I could tell was a delightful city as soon as I arrived. The Danish concept of hygge (loosely translated as 'coziness') became quite famous this year, as the city embraced the chilly winter and branded the warm, snuggly attitude and lifestyle. I was blessed with quite warm weather throughout my visit, but I could tell that this city is truly incredibly cozy and pleasant. Bikes ride by on every street, and they come in shapes and sizes I had never seen before, including many with all sorts of giant baskets to hold belongings, pets, or other people.

I spent some amazing time catching up with Becca and Shva, and I had the chance to travel solo around Denmark. The first day, I took a train north to the coast that stares down Sweden across the blue sea. From there, I took a ferry into Sweden, where I ate lunch and wandered around the cute city of Helsingborg. Pretty fun to be able to go to another country for lunch! When I told my family about my day, my mom remarked that it's so nice I made it into Sweden, because I actually have a Swedish ancestor. Who knew?? From relaying the story to my grandparents, it turns out that I actually have Danish roots as well! I guess that's where my light complexion comes from.

I returned back to Denmark to the city of Helsingør, which famously houses the Kronborg Castle, which is the site in which Shakespeare sets his famous drama Hamlet. An incredible coincidence occurred that afforded me the most moving experience I could have hoped for at the site. I spent most of the day listening to podcasts, and that weeks episode of NPR's This American Life podcast was titled Act V, and told the story of Missouri inmates performing a full performance of Hamlet from prison. I walked the perimeter of the castle, with the coast marking the northern border of Denmark on my other side, listening as prisoners shared their reflections on remorse, regret, and redemption. I graduated from university in Missouri just a year ago only to find myself at the gates of this very castle that those inmates imagined. I recalled the lyrics that conclude Bob Dylan's Ballad in Plain D that my friend Brett played for me years ago:

"Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
'How good, how good does it feel to be free?'
And I answer them most mysteriously
'Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?'"

Back in Copenhagen, Becca showed me around the city, highlighted by the adorable canal with the colorful houses, the mermaid statue (although she definitely has legs), the courtyard with the royal residences at its perimeter, the hippie commune of Christiana, and various other towers, buildings, and gardens.
Another highlight was visiting the Jewish school where Becca and Shva teach kindergarten and work with the teens. I really lucked out with the day of my visit. First, we walked through the gan, where the children were set to perform a circus! It was the cutest thing in the world. Then, the 9th graders led a water fight outside. I hung back with the kindergarteners who were quite perplexed by these goofy big kids. The teachers explained that because it was their last day of class, the big kids wore costumes and had a water fight, but the kindergarteners understandably didn't quite connect all the dots.

With Becca and Shva on my last day in the country, we visited Bakken, the world's oldest amusement park. We rode a rickety wooden roller coaster hoping that it was the oldest roller coaster in the world, but it turns it that it was just 'one of the oldest.' Still, pretty cool. The amusement park was compact, with rides, restaurants, and carnival games packed side by side and hovering over each other. The park also had an authentic feel to it, not covered with corporate logos and brands. From there, we went to a grassy beach nearby and read our books before heading home, and I set off the airport.

Even after just a week ago, I did miss Budapest, and was glad to come back 'home.' Berlin, Copenhagen, and Budapest are all great cities, and all have totally different vibes. I am very lucky to be able to get a taste of each within a single week.

PS: I started reading the Harry Potter series for my first time (!!!!) 2 months ago, and I brought the final book with me on the visit. I enjoyed reading while sitting in these gardens outside Frederiksborg Castle, which had a sort of Hogwarts vibe to it

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