On October 9th, 2019, an armed assailant* attacked a synagogue in Halle and the nearby kebab shop Kiez-Döner, murdering two people and injuring several others. On July 21st, the trial against him began in the city of Magdeburg.
Rabbi Jeremy Borovitz was born and raised in Paramus, New York, USA. Together with his wife, Rabbi Rebecca Blady, he moved to Berlin in 2019 as a co-founder of “Hillel Germany: Base Berlin”, which aims to strengthen the young and vibrant Jewish community in Germany. As part of their “Base Berlin” programme, Borovitz and Blady organised a trip to Halle with a group of 20 young people from across Germany to experience a meaningful Yom Kippur service.
The following conversation is part of an interview series with some of the co-plaintiffs in the trial. Rachel Spicker spoke with them about their experience of the attack, why they have decided to become a co-plaintiff, and what they expect from the trial.
Belltower.News: What was your experience of the attack?
Jeremy Borovitz: When we noticed that an attack was happening, I kicked into action mode. I was focusing on keeping the group safe, keeping everyone calm, and getting everyone upstairs. After we located the missing two group members and got in touch with our babysitter and our daughter, we went back down to continue prayer, which was very powerful in that moment. At some point, someone told us to stop the prayer so we could be evacuated. We ended up waiting for two hours for the evacuation. It was upsetting because the synagogue had felt like a safe space up until that point. We didn’t have a designated police officer to talk to us, but rather several different officers, which made the situation even more confusing. When it was time to leave the synagogue, there were many police regulations, which we didn’t understand and weren’t explained to us. We had brought our own kosher food with us to have at the end of Yom Kippur. We packed it all in a suitcase and wanted to take it with us on the bus that brought us to the hospital. We had been fasting for almost 23 hours by then. The police told us that we couldn’t take a suitcase with us and that only a personal bag was allowed. They told us that we would be taken to the cafeteria where there would be food there and it took a while to explain to them why that food wouldn’t be permitted to us. In the end, we had to take all the food from the suitcase and put it in small plastic bags. After that, I had to argue with the police so that we could take our daughter with us on the bus to the hospital. Initially, she wasn’t allowed on the bus because she wasn’t in the synagogue with us. In addition, a nun was waiting inside the bus as an offer for emotional support. A member of our group then asked her to leave. Rebecca and I were the only rabbis there.
After we had arrived at the hospital, we decided to finish the prayer there. In the middle of the prayer, the police came and said they had to debrief us immediately. I resisted and said that they would have to wait 20 minutes until we finish before we can talk. They were angry and frustrated, saying that the debrief was more important than our prayer. The only reason they didn’t manage to break up the prayer was that one of the hospital’s managing directors told them to stop intervening and let us finish.
At the end of the day, we wanted to get our belongings from the apartment where Rebecca, my daughter and I stayed at. It was located above the synagogue. We understood that it was a crime scene, so we asked if someone could accompany us to get our belongings out of there. The police told us weren’t allowed and that we had to wait for the state to decide before we could go in. That was all they said. We didn’t have any clothes and we didn’t have a place to stay in the middle of the night with our one-year-old daughter and me wearing just a kittel. They were very unhelpful. We ended up calling the hotel, which the other group members were staying at, and managed to stay there. For the whole day, I was very task-oriented. I was trying to make sure that the group had a sense of calm, knowing that the current situation wasn’t going to last forever. My focus was on how to make everything as normal and healthy as possible, given the insane nature of the situation. Looking back now, we are still so grateful to the hospital staff. They were very understanding and supporting the whole time, and they took really good care of us. The same can’t be said of the police.
How do you feel about the attack today?
The first two months after the attack, I was super strong. I was trying to make sure that our group was being taken care of. After some time, I had a breakdown and realised I needed therapy. This experience changed something in me. I’m not the same as I was before, but I’m still trying to find out how exactly.
Why did you choose to become a co-plaintiff?
For me, there were many different reasons to become a co-plaintiff. I think it’s important symbolically to have rabbis testify in a German court of law. But there are two main motivations: I think the police should have done a better job. As I’ve mentioned, they treated us like suspects rather than victims. There was a lack of humanity: they couldn’t see us as human beings, they almost treated us like a burden, and there was definitely a lack of cultural knowledge. I don’t know why and I don’t want to assume motives. I simply expect more from the police. By addressing this in court, we might contribute towards changing the system they work in. My other motivation is that I deeply believe that antisemitism, racism and islamophobia are closely linked with one another. It’s not a coincidence that the attacker started at a synagogue and then drove to a kebab shop. I feel that we are in some way privileged as Jews here. People in Germany are more willing to listen to us than to people of Turkish or Arab descent, Roma or other persecuted groups. I really want to use the platform of the trial for a good cause and draw attention to the fact that these ideologies are linked to one another. If we address antisemitism, we also need to address racism and other forms of hatred and discrimination as well.
What do you expect from the trial?
We, as “Base Berlin”, organised the trip to Halle to experience a meaningful and unique Yom Kippur service. As one of the group leaders, I feel responsible to be part of the narrative that needs to be told in public. I want to make sure that everyone who experienced this attack is able to tell their story. I hope that the court and the German public are listening to the different stories and perspectives from that day and make an effort to learn from it and change society for the better.
Further information on the trial: Together with NSU-Watch, the VBRG is documenting the trial in German, English and Russian. On the blog halle-prozess-report.de, you can find information, reports and perspectives on the trial from co-plaintiffs and their lawyers, with support from activists and supporters.
*At the beginning of the trial, a group of co-plaintiffs published a joint declaration in which they have called on media representatives not to mention the attacker’s name to deny him a platform. We have respected this wish in this interview.