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Report: The Neo-Hassidic Week 2023 in Dresden

It was probably no coincidence that the first Neo-Hasidic Festival in Dresden in this month of Elul was a six-day affair. The echoes of those first six days of creation were vibrating in the very walls of this extraordinary kehillah, the Jüdische Kultusgemeinde, Dresden, located on the physical site and in the buildings of the former Leipziger freight train station deporting the Jews of Dresden to their deaths in the concentration camps of the Third Reich.

Walking across the old cobblestones towards the main building, one passes a large art installation of railway sleepers forming an archway beneath which one may pause, read and reflect on the time and space we are entering. Picture? It was only possible to create this physical, psychological and spiritual home for the yeshiva students - the young men and women who have left a life of ultra-orthodoxy behind them – by working with Rabbi Akiva with their hands and youthful energy, to transform what must have appeared to be a ruin at first, meeting outside under the wings of the Shechinah in a white tent when being inside was not possible, assisted by community members, friends and neighbours.

To celebrate this new life in Dresden just two years on from the founding, this Neo-Hasidic Festival 2023 brought together a small but exquisite group of rabbis, scholars, seekers, and community members from Germany, Switzerland, the United States, and Israel. The presence of renowned spiritual leader Rabbi Professor Arthur (Art) Green, whose lifetime love of the old and new Hasidic masters provided an echoing voice of authority and authenticity for the festival. Rabbi Green is the Founding Dean of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Boston, and the author of numerous books and articles on Hasidism. Explaining the term Neo-Hasidism on the first day of the Festival, Rabbi Green taught that the word “Hasid” is derived from “hesed,” a free-flowing love that knows no bounds. Thus, a Hasid is one who will give of themself entirely, preserving Jewish tradition, building a values-based community, intense and joyful study of text, and celebration with the heart at the centre of worship. The “Neo” or renewal of Hasidic values and teachings in Jewish and even outside Jewish communities, reflects the intense need in human beings to find God as our “significant other,” or twin, whose voice is within our soul and manifests in our partnership with God in creation. Because this partnership in Creation is on-going, each person finds ways (hears the echo) of healing the world and experiencing the connection between all things and God.

Since the Festival took place during the preparation time of reflection before the High Holy Days, Rabbi Mordechai Zeller taught a shiur on the significance of blowing the shofar in Hasidism and Kabbalah, and demonstrated its power during an outing to the Saxonian “Switzerland” mountains. Photo? It was a tremendous honour to have a grandson of one of the famous students of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Dr Zeev Kitzis, present Hasidic stories about the founder of Hasidism, and another about the leaders of the Hasidic movement who curiously chose not to venture into Germany. Together with Rabbi Shai Zarhi, Dr Kitzis introduced us to High Holy Day melodies in one workshop, another on the Hasidic Kumsitz, and they led many niggunim and creative singing sessions. Rabbi Zarhi led a workshop about the non-verbal language of prayer in Neo-Hasidism, referencing texts by Rabbi Nachman, Bialik and Rav Kook. Rabbi Mordechai Zeller brought a Jungian perspective to Hasidism and dreams, through the eyes of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. Rabbi Nava Bernstein led a creative evening of meditation and singing, which touched the spirit and heart in the Hasidic way. Rabbi Art Green opened and closed the festival with explanations about the key concepts, history and future of Hasidism; about spiritual preparation for Shabbat; Hasidic learning and meditation; and a discussion on the Parascha and other commentaries on Hasidic texts. Micki Weinberg led a shiur on the notion of “Alterity” and shabbat as an opportunity to experience the kabbalistic “shemittah” or letting go. What was once valid is invalid and new rules and regulating factors must be discovered. Dr Weinberg referenced many thinkers: Heschel, Walter Benjamin, Cordovero, Hannah Arendt and the film maker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Following Havdallah, we watched a documentary following the life of Menachem Philip, a former Haredi singer and film director who left the community. Rabbi Aika put in a call to Mr Philip and the audience had the opportunity to discuss the pain of leaving family and community and the fears and stumbling blocks one encounters as an OTD (Off the Dereg) when leaving behind an ultra-orthodox way of life.

During the week several outings were organised to treat the visitors to the history of the Jews in Dresden, as well as the history of the ruling classes: Dukes and Kings of Saxony and Poland whose statues and palaces still stand in the old city, led by Chairman of the Jüdische Kultusgemeinde Dresden, Moshe D. Barnett, and a member of the Jewish-Christian Organisation of Dresden. The For Friday night the community joined the Festival for Kabbalat Shabbat, and on Shabbat morning for Shacharit services, led by Rabbi Akiva Weingarten, the Community Rabbi, founder and leader of the Dresden Jüdischen Kultusgemeinde and Bescht Yeshiva.

Neo-Hasidism finds expression in communities today, but identifies with no one “stream” or movement of Judaism. The writers and thinkers of the early twentieth century living outside the traditional Hasidic communities founded two hundred and fifty years before, argued that “the key message of Hasidism – that each person can become aware of God’s presence throughout the world and should live each moment as though standing in that presence – needs to be available to everyone.” (Source: “These are the Words, A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life” Arthur Green, Jewish Lights Pub., 2012, 2nd Ed., p 161)

The Festival Hasidic niggunim (joyous singing/chanting, often leading directly to dancing!) began and concluded each event. Local history was also included in the Festival, both Jewish and Saxony, by local guides, as well as the intriguing philosophy and development of the Bescht Yeshiva and the community, told by Rabbi Akiva Weingarten, the physical and spiritual force driving these projects. The overwhelming presence at the inauguration ceremonies on the Festival Sunday evening of hundreds of well-wishers from the Government, the city, the community, other religious communities, and the neighbourhood, was a testimony to the awe and gratitude for what has been achieved here in this growing Jewish presence in Dresden. The lay leaders of the two-year-old community, Moshe D. Barnett, David Lamberger, Rosa Schmitthenner, and others, are facilitating new Jewish life whose spiritual roots began in the 18th century, with an invitation to each of us to celebrate Jewish life and values wherever we find ourselves. This First Neo-Hasidic Festival in Dresden will surely breathe the breath of God heard so powerfully in the shofar in the Saxony mountains, far and wide. To register your interest in attending the next Neo Hasidic Week of learning and festivities in the future, please write to

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