How Germany’s ‘Rent a Jew’ Fights Stereotypes
By Thomas Siurkus
“Are Jews really rich?” Mascha Schmerling laughs: “Unfortunately not. I wish it would be true in my case!” Debunking prejudices and myths is one of the reasons why Mascha is talking to people all over Germany and answering questions about Jewish life. She is the cofounder of an initiative called Rent a Jew, an organization that gives interested groups the possibility to meet Jewish people, as many Germans have never even met a Jew. Talking with each other, instead about each other, is the motto of the initiative.
Born in Moscow, Schmerling arrived in Germany with her mother in 1992. They were part of the so-called Jewish “contingent refugees” who today account for around 80 percent of Germany’s total Jewish population. Besides working as a communications manager in Hamburg, she is one of 50 speakers at Rent a Jew. Moment talked to her about the initiative, Jewish stereotypes and the program’s provocative name.
Where did the idea of Rent a Jew come from, and how did the initiative come to be?
A few years ago, a group of us working in media were looking for a project where we could work on the perception of Jews in Germany. We found projects that were talking about Jews, Judaism and the Holocaust, but there were almost no projects that involved speaking with Jews directly. Our idea was to create a project where people could directly connect with Jews living in Germany and talk to them.
First we came up with the name, and then we began to develop a concept. The idea was not to make it a lecture and teach people about Judaism and Jewish history in Germany, but rather to introduce ourselves with our personal stories and say what Judaism means to us, and how we practice it in our daily life. We talk about food, music and all these other normal things. Instead of having scholars, we wanted to have ordinary people—neighbors, the girl next door, people you meet on the subway—lead the seminars. We mostly visit schools and other educational institutions, but also churches and religious groups.
Why did you name it “Rent a Jew”? It’s a pretty provocative name.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. We are aware that the name is provocative, and that’s part of the plan.
The name is striking. When people first read about it, they are often surprised and want to learn more about it. This was the idea behind using a catchy phrase. When people read more about what we do, they understand what’s behind it, and that it’s not there to offend anyone.
How does Rent a Jew work?
People can go on our website and book a session with one of our speakers. Teachers often approach us. Some have witnessed anti-Semitic remarks from students and think it’s a good idea to organize a meeting. They tell us about themselves and what they expect from the session, and then we try to match them with one of our speakers. Currently, we have about 50 speakers across Germany.
The structure of our sessions is simple: We introduce ourselves and the project and then encourage the participants to ask questions. We also ask questions: Have they ever met a Jew? What have they heard about Jews? How many Jews do they think live in Germany? We get really interesting responses. Some people think that 40 million Jews live in Germany. [In reality, some 200,000 Jews live in Germany, less than 1 percent of the population.] We try to break the ice by making a lot of jokes and telling them Jewish jokes. The participants ask us about many different topics. Food is a favorite. And then, at some point, they also start asking questions about topics like Israel.
The reaction is usually positive. I think it’s because we take the time to talk to people as individuals and we let them get to know us as people before we talk about Jewish topics. It is important to have good chemistry.
What are the most common stereotypes you come across, and how do you try to debunk them?
“Are Jews really rich?” and “Do Jews really control the media?” are probably the top two myths. We always respond by speaking about our own experiences and really try to handle it with humor.
We try not to debunk the stereotypes from the Jewish side, but instead show the participants how stereotypes work in general. We are doing this work not only for ourselves, but for all people. It doesn’t matter if you talk about women, Christians or Muslims. We try to show how stereotypes are created, how they work and where they come from. When we take the example of “Are Jews really rich?” we try to give the participants historical context by telling them that Jews were forbidden to practice certain professions in the Middle Ages, and one of the only professions was to lend money.
You’ve said that some people are afraid to even use the word “Jew.” Where does that unease come from?
It is interesting to talk about, especially in Germany with its history. German society felt guilt about the Holocaust for a long time, and there was no open discussion about it at first. Furthermore, there were almost no Jews they could talk to after the Second World War. You could talk about Jews, but not with Jews. The unease that some people feel when they interact with Jews might be because their first association with Judaism is probably the Holocaust. Our initiative wants to change that. We want to make it so that people don’t think first about the Holocaust when they encounter Jews, but about ordinary people living in Germany.
How is it going so far?
Since the media outlet Deutsche Welle reported on us, we’ve had a lot of Jewish people living in Germany writing us and wanting to join us. We still haven’t gotten back to all of them because there are so many. There are also people from abroad—for instance, Americans who live in Germany or are moving to Germany—who write that they would like to join our initiative. People living in other countries contact us and ask if we will outsource our idea to other countries one day, because they would like to do something similar. We’ve gotten this reaction from Canada and Hungary.
The next step is to get more bookings from schools and more speakers to be able to offer our service all over Germany.
Jewish life in Germany is diverse. How do you represent that diversity at Rent a Jew?
One goal of Rent a Jew is to represent the diversity of Judaism. We have volunteers from many backgrounds. We have secular Jews, traditional Jews and Orthodox Jews joining us. A lot of the Jews living in Germany emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s, like me, but we also have Israelis who have lived in Germany for a long time and Jews from mixed families. One of our speakers has an Iranian father and a German mother. We have a lot of interesting people, and they can talk about different topics.
What’s the long-term goal of Rent a Jew?
It would be great if Jews could just be perceived as normal people—if they didn’t even have to talk about being Jewish. That is the vision of our initiative: to get people not to label Jews, but to see them as people like you and me.