Jewish education in Berlin is reemerging, and for the first time in history, the German government is funding the training of Jewish rabbis and cantors. In the outskirts of Berlin, Jewish students from around the world are enrolling at the University of Potsdam’s Abraham Geiger College, which provides a comprehensive five-year Rabbinic training program – Germany’s first such seminary since the Holocaust.
The state-funded program was founded in 1999 by Rabbis Walter Jacob and Walter Homolka, who noticed that the Jewish community in modern Germany was lacking rabbinic leadership. To help Jewish immigrants feel more at home, they set out to “reestablish the broken link of German Jewry,” says Homolka, rector at Abraham Geiger College.
“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.”
Jacob, president of Abraham Geiger College, was born in Germany but was forced to flee to the United States in 1940, when he was only nine years old. But when he visited Germany as an adult many decades thereafter, he discovered “a new Germany with a new group of people.”
In Germany there was a great interest and willingness to move forward,” he says, describing what the atmosphere at the time he and Homolka began the German-language rabbinic studies program. “And that was duplicated in the United States – not 100 percent because at that time there were still lots of people who had memories of the old Germany and of the persecution.”
But the establishment of Abraham Geiger College triggered the onset of deeper interest in Judaism. After the school ordained its inaugural three rabbis in 2006 – marking Germany’s first such ordination since the Second World War – 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.”
And ordinations are not restricted to Berlin: the school’s ordination ceremonies take place in cities all across Germany – including, most recently, the cities of Erfurt and Bamberg. The tuition-free school also attracts a sizeable class of students from across Europe – especially the former Soviet Union – who then become rabbis or cantors in their home countries.
Most recently, the University of Potsdam also opened the School of Jewish Theology to appeal to Jewish students whose goal is not necessarily to become rabbis. Homolka calls the new initiative “a vision come true.” With 47 students enrolled in the Bachelor and Master’s programs already, the school is already filled to capacity.
But beyond classrooms and synagogues, Homolka believes there is a diversity of Jewish life and culture throughout Germany.
“For the Jewish traveler, there is much to explore: Roots, ruins and the revival of a rich and diverse Jewish life,” he says.
By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany