How a Potsdam rabbi school is bringing a 'Jewish Renaissance' to Central Europe
The Abraham Geiger College has become a centre of European Judaism, with Rabbis and cantors being trained in Potsdam and Berlin for 20 years.
Anita Kantor wistfully holds a Torah scroll in her hands. The Hungarian is set to be ordained as a rabbi in the next few months.
Originally a religious studies teacher, she hopes to return to Budapest and open up a Jewish study centre there, a "Beth Midrash” (the Hebrew term for such an educational institution).
"This is more than a dream," says Kantor.
The Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, where Kantor has been studying since 2014, has put their support behind her.
The college near Berlin has been training rabbis for 20 years, and Walter Homolka, its founder and principal, considers it part of a Jewish Renaissance in Central Europe, despite growing anti-Semitism and hostility towards Israel.
Rabbis being ordained at the college. Photo: DPA
The college owes its existence to tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union who relocated to Germany in the 1990s. In 1989, only 25,000 Jews lived in Germany. But now, over 100,000 Jews are living in the Bundesrepublik again. The need for trained staff in synagogues, above all rabbis, has been increasing ever since.
Homolka says that he can hardly believe a centre for European Judaism has arisen from his idea to establish the first training centre in Germany for liberal clergy.
The College will soon be relocating to the Neues Palais (New Palace) in Potsdam, where historical buildings are being developed into Potsdam University’s new Training Centre for Jewish Theology.
In 2012, the German Council of Science and Humanities recommended in 2012 that Jewish theology be established as a university subject.
“It wasn’t well received everywhere," says Homolka, "but if you introduce Muslim theology into university curriculum, you can’t ignore Jewish theology.”
Before Abraham Geiger College was founded, rabbis were primarily trained in the USA or UK, and would usually stay there afterwards.
According to Homolka, “when you become part of Jewish life in New York, you don’t necessarily want to come back to Germany”.
Students from around the world
However today, the institute near Berlin receives applications from all over the world, with students coming from Russia, Israel, Brazil and the USA. The College also has partnerships with educational institutions in both Budapest and Moscow.
An rabbinical ordination at the Abraham Geigner College. Photo: DPA
By now, 35 graduates, 8 women and 27 men, have completed their training at the college and gone on to work in South Africa, the UK, Israel, as well as in Jewish communities around Germany.
The college is in close contact with communities, where they meet young people who could potentially become rabbis themselves. In 2010, Alina Traiger became the first woman in over 75 years to be ordained as a rabbi in Germany. “Our graduates are our success stories”, says Homolka.
Shut down by Nazis
The Abraham Geiger College is in the tradition of the College for the Study of Judaism in Berlin, which was founded in 1872 by Abraham Geiger, a theologian and rabbi (1810-1874), and later shut down in 1942 by the Nazis.
The liberal academic institution is rooted in connecting Jewish traditions and modern scientific issues. A key topic is whether tradition can be questioned. Liberal Jews say yes, though the Orthodox are sceptical.
“For an orthodox rabbi, it’s sinful for a man to even want to assess the value of tradition,” says Homolka.
The Orthodox community were initially sceptical about Abraham Geiger College. However, according to Homolka, the two denominations have grown closer. Though they hold different views on issues such as whether a woman should be educated as a rabbi, Homolka highlights that “the world is changing”.
Regina Jonas, the first ever female rabbi, came from Berlin and was ordained in 1935. Today, there are around 1,000 female rabbis worldwide.
As Anita Kantor makes her own mark on history, she says, “I’m trying to find my place in this male dominated tradition. Female rabbis have a place too,” arguing that the classic image of the rabbi must be rethought.