BERLIN (JTA) – In an unusual sight in Berlin parks on Sunday, people were lazing about or strolling down the paths as usual, but they were wearing gleaming white yarmulkes.
In all, some 6,000 white satin yarmulkes were given out by 70 volunteers in five parks in the city, in an event planned by three non-Jewish friends to counter a recent anti-Semitic incident targeting a man wearing the Jewish head covering.
They dubbed their kippah action “Kopf Hoch” — literally, “Keep your head high,” or “Cheer Up.”
“It’s always important to do something against anti-Semitism, and for the safety of our city in general,” Anne, one of the organizers, told JTA. “But with the last incident, it clearly is not the job of Jews alone — all of us have to watch out for each other.”
Initially, more parks were included in the plan. But the Berlin police advised the organizers not to carry out their action in the Kreuzberg and Neukoeln districts, Anne said. Both areas have large Arab populations, and some, though not all, recent anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin have been attributed to people of Arab background.
The action organizers — Anne, Jannik and Marco — received support from the Berlin Jewish community, the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and the Amadeo-Antonio Foundation, as well as from private individuals. They asked that their last names not be used, to avoid people trying to contact them at work. They can be contacted through their Facebook page.
Volunteers started handing out the yarmulkes early Sunday afternoon. Within an hour, the green lawns of Monbijou Park in the Mitte District were dotted with kippah wearers, lounging on the grass, picnicking or otherwise enjoying a sunny day.
Volunteer Janin Viviane Ahnefeld, a German-Israeli attorney, took a break from work to hand out the free yarmulkes. She was accompanied by the best ice-breaker: her kippah-wearing, golden retriever, Pete.
Ahnefeld said her best customers were “tourists from other countries. I had people from Denmark, France, Poland, Britain. And they were all very open, they wanted to join in and they gladly took a kippah.”
And they posed for photos with Pete and Janin.
Locals tended to be more reluctant, she said. “I had a conversation with one German guy who said, ‘I am not religious, and don’t want to have anything to do with it.’ I told him it has nothing to do with whether you are religious or not, but he was not interested.”
It’s a kind of “looking away,” which is “too bad,” she said.
Anne said she only had two negative reactions, “but they weren’t bad. One person said ‘no,’ and another nearby said, ‘Then I’ll take it!’”
Some said they were not religious, but added, “I find what you are doing totally good.”
The event follows a kippah “flash mob” and a rally last week, which drew some 2,500 concerned Berliners to the doorstep of the Jewish community center in former west Berlin. A recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents has been met by calls for tougher action against perpetrators.
On April 17, an attacker shouting “Jew!” in Arabic assaulted a non-Jewish man wearing a yarmulke on a Berlin street. The victim was an Israeli Arab who said he donned the kippah to test whether it had actually become dangerous to wear a yarmulke in Germany.
Critics say the solidarity actions and even government promises are too little, and almost too late.
But these events get people to “come out of their bubble and talk about what is happening in our city,” Anne noted. They also can help people overcome fear of others and stereotypes.
On Sunday, she met with some Arab families in the park. In one case, Anne said: “Someone translated for me, and the father of the family said, ‘Of course! We will do it with you.’” She added: “Other Arab families reacted differently, but always respectful.”
Though by far not all park-goers were wearing kippahs by the end of the day, there was a distinct impression of something unusual going on.
“One woman came over and asked if a Jewish festival was being celebrated today,” said Anne, laughing. “It was a moment of normalcy” for yarmulkes in Berlin.