Q&A: Rabbi Walter Homolka
Rabbi Walter Homolka, PhD, DHL, is rector of the Abraham Geiger College for the training of rabbis, executive director of the Zacharias Frankel College, and a professor of Jewish studies at Potsdam University in Germany. He is author of many books, including "The Gate to Perfection: The Idea of Peace in Jewish Thought", and coauthor of "How to Do Good & Avoid Evil: A Global Ethic from the Sources of Judaism".
What role did you have in initiating the rabbinical training program at Abraham Geiger College?
In the 1990s, the issue for Rabbi Walter Jacob and me was: Will we be able to offer a meaningful explanation to all those Jews who have immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union why they should associate with the Jewish community? A part of the solution is our rabbinical seminary, Abraham Geiger College, which was founded in 1999 and provides the vocational training for future Jewish clergy studying at the University of Potsdam.
What motivated you personally to get involved with this program?
Trained in London in the 1990s, I realized that we need change agents in the congregations in today’s Germany, professionals that can develop Jewish identity from the perspective of our tradition and offer a stimulus for such an identity in a contemporary fashion. It was with the encouragement of personalities like Rabbi Jacob that we began to reestablish the broken link of German Jewry. He is a true keeper of the flame.
What sort of work (specifically) do you perform at Abraham Geiger College today?
Enlarge image An ordination of rabbis in Berlin. (© dpa - Report) At Abraham Geiger College, we train non-orthodox rabbis and cantors, men and women alike. Our school’s curriculum is modeled on the successful North American Reform seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We are accredited by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Both the rabbinical and the cantorial track provide professionals that will be able to serve as change agents in synagogues and Jewish communities throughout Europe, but also in South Africa, Israel, and the Unites States. We are training homegrown rabbis and cantors who are in tune with modern society. There are no tuition fees to be paid at the University of Potsdam, unlike at other rabbinical seminaries in the UK or in the U.S, and we offer scholarships for living expenses.
How do you envision the future of the rabbinical training program?
The new School of Jewish Theology at Potsdam University which opened last November is a vision come true. We offer Bachelor and Master programs for a wider target group, also for Jewish students who do not see themselves as a rabbi or cantor. With 47 newly enrolled students from Germany, Israel, the United States and Eastern Europe, the BA program is oversubscribed. This year, we will also accept the first students at the Zacharias Frankel College, a rabbinical school conceived to train a new generation of Masorti/Conservative rabbis to address the spiritual needs of a growing European Jewry. We assume that Judaism in Germany and beyond will continue to flourish and that our graduates will stand at its center.
Do you think Germany is making an effort to provide greater Jewish education programs or information centers?
When we ordained our inaugural three rabbis in 2006 - the first ordainees in Germany since the Shoa - , German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote that the event was “special because many did not believe that after the Holocaust Jewish life would flourish in Germany.” Both our college and our new School of Jewish Theology were warmly endorsed by the German government and are partners in the Centrefor Jewish Studies Berlin-Brandenburg. This center pools and networks academic activities in both study and teachingand is state funded. One other fine example for Germany’s efforts is the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk, a scholarship foundation supported by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. Today, there are about 8,000 Jewish university students in Germany. The foundation provides about 300 scholarships for Jewish undergraduates and graduate students who have above average achievements in school and university studies.
Have you noticed any sort of increased interest in Germany among Jewish communities?
Enlarge image (© Tobias Barniske) Programs like Germany Close Up and English language media like the Jewish Voice from Germany certainly help to increase interest in modern Germany and its wider Jewish community. This April, we are hosting the biennial of the European Union of Progressive Judaism in Dresden, and I notice more and more rabbinical missions, Jewish heritage tours and individual Jewish visitors from the U.S.
What could Germany do better to appeal to the Jewish traveler?
Cities like Berlin, Leipzig or Erfurt do already address the Jewish tourist. However, there are Jewish film and culture festivals, the European Day of Jewish Culture and many more events and sites that could be advertised in a more distinct way. Germany lacks initiatives like Poland’s “Shtetl Route” or the “Routes of Sefarad”, the network of Jewish quarters in Spain, but could certainly promote its Jewish heritage in a joint effort at the annual tourist trade fair in Berlin.
Overall, how do you feel about Germany as a destination for those who are interested in learning more about Judaism?
Enlarge image Rabbi Walter Homolka at an ordination. (© Tobias Barniske) Jewish Studies in Germany have been able to gain international recognition and acclaim in recent years. Agencies like the German Academic Exchange Service or the Goethe Institute provide information about academic programs and summer universities. For the Jewish traveler, there is much to explore: Roots, ruins and the revival of a rich and diverse Jewish life.