German Jews wait for opening of first liberal seminary


WASHINGTON, March 19 (JTA) – The opening of a liberal rabbinical seminary near Berlin this fall may bring intra-Jewish tensions in the German Jewish community to a head.

But Jewish leaders are holding out hope that by further strengthening the rapidly growing progressive streams in Germany, the school just might help promote Jewish harmony.

As applications start arriving at the Abraham Geiger College near Berlin, school organizers and other leaders are expressing concern over tensions in the community.

In an address last week in Washington to the conference of ARZA/World Union, the international and Zionist arm of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, Geiger College’s president spoke of the need to encourage rabbinical leadership in Germany.

Rabbi Walter Jacob promised to rebuild the liberal Jewish movements, despite what he called attacks from Orthodox Jews who hold positions of power in the community.

“Progressive” is the German Jewish community’s term for the equivalent of the American Reform movement, while the term liberal includes progressives as well as other alternatives to Orthodoxy.

One reason for the interdenominational rivalry is that German religious groups receive state support, and the Jewish central council is then responsible for dividing the money – supposedly in a pluralistic manner.

So far, however, the council has funded only traditional groups, and will not give full recognition to the Progressive movement, Jacob said.

For his part, Andreas Nachama, the leader of Berlin’s Jewish community, told JTA that the problem is a lack of communication.

Nachama, president of the Berlin Jewish Community, an umbrella group with seven member-synagogues ranging from Orthodox to liberal, said ARZA/World Union has not consulted with them as they’ve set up the college and have not asked the community to place student rabbis in Berlin’s synagogues.

“It’s the same thing as love. You can’t force someone to love. You can’t force someone to communicate,” said Nachama.

As liberal groups continue to grow and assert themselves, it is inevitable that there will be an escalation of tension, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis. The new seminary will give greater prominence to the liberal community, Schneier said, raising the ante for competition in the Jewish community for funding, representation and prestige.

NABOR, which has representatives from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements in the United States and Canada, is hoping to serve as a model for the German rabbinic council, Schneier said.

Schneier, who hosted the NABOR annual conference in Berlin last week, said the question is whether leaders want to address the tensions in a civil manner. If not, Schneier warned, it could lead to rhetoric and dissension that would “engulf the community in conflict.”

Germany has the only growing Jewish population in Europe, thanks to tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the past decade.

Approximately 100,000 Jews now live in Germany, making it the third largest Jewish community in Western Europe. Many of the new immigrants know little about Judaism and Jewish tradition, however.

The influx has created a pressing need for new synagogues, schools, rabbis and community centers.

The seminary is set financially for the next three to four years, according to Jacob, and the school will accept between three and five students per year. So far at least 30 people have shown interest.

Professors will teach courses such as rabbinic commentaries on the bible, pastoral counseling and liturgy, while a number of courses will be offered through Jewish studies’ programs at German universities.

(JTA Staff Writer Peter Ephross in New York contributed to this report.)

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