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Debut of Three Jewish Schools Seen As New Start for German Community

October 17, 2001
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History is in the making this fall in Germany with the opening of three new Jewish schools for adults.

Two are rabbinical programs — Germany’s first since World War II ended — and the third is the country’s first Jewish higher educational program for women.

Three rabbinical candidates began studies Monday at the new, multi-denominational rabbinical program of the Institute of Judaic Studies in Heidelberg.

At the same time, five candidates are beginning studies at a new liberal seminary, the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam.

In Frankfurt, seven German women have begun an Orthodox Jewish educational program at the new Ronald S. Lauder Midrasha for women, a sister school to the two-year-old Lauder Juedisches Lehrhaus for men in Berlin.

Presently, all students in the Heidelberg program are from Germany.

The Geiger College rabbinical candidates are from Germany, Switzerland, Holland, South Africa and Italy. The Lauder school students come from the former Soviet Union.

Both rabbinical schools had hoped to attract female candidates, but presently all students are men.

Observers say the new programs are a sign of the coming-of-age of Germany’s postwar Jewish community.

Germany’s Jewish population has grown from less than 35,000 in 1989 to nearly 100,000 today, largely due to the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are about 20 rabbis officially serving more than 80 communities across the country.

Jews here want homegrown rabbis and teachers, not imported ones, said Rabbi Allen Podet, rector of the Abraham Geiger College, which is affiliated with the Moses Mendelssohn Center at the University of Potsdam.

“The German-Jewish community has reached the point in its development where they require rabbis who are not foreigners,” said Podet, himself a Reform rabbi from Buffalo, N.Y.

Non-German rabbis often “don’t understand the customs and the people,” he said.

“Naturally it is better if they speak German,” said Nathan Kalmanowicz, who oversees cultural and educational affairs for the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “But the most important point is that a rabbi must be ordained by a recognized institution. Where they come from is of secondary importance.”

Both rabbinical programs are geared toward ordination.

The multidenominational nature of the Heidelberg school is a point of pride for its rector, Michael Graetz. After two years of study in Heidelberg, a student may apply to study in seminaries in Israel, the United States or Great Britain.

“We don’t exclude,” said Graetz, 68, who was born in the German city of Breslau, which is now part of Poland. “The German community is too small to have the same divisions as in the United States.

“In the past, in Germany, there were rabbinical seminaries in Breslau and in Berlin, and everyone could start and finish his studies in one place,” he said.

“Today, we don’t see the possibility to give our students a full study program. On one hand, there are not enough candidates. And on the other hand, we do not have enough tradition as a rabbinical seminary to ensure that the rabbinical preparation will be OK, that it will be adapted to the necessities of modern Judaism, whether Traditional, Conservative or Liberal.”

At the Geiger College, candidates most likely will be ordained by rabbis associated with the program, including Rabbi Walter Jacob of Pittsburgh; Israeli Rabbis Moshe Zemer and Tuvia Ben Chorin; Rabbi Gunther Plaut of Toronto; and Rabbi Podet.

Podet, 66, a tenured professor of philosophy and religious studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo, made a one-year commitment to Geiger College.

“It’s a mitzvah that you can’t possibly refuse,” he said. “It is really something, if you are given an opportunity to make a difference in the Jewish community or any human community. That’s what we are here for.”

As part of their education, Geiger students will serve internships with congregations in Germany and elsewhere. The third year will be spent in Israel, but details of that program have yet to be arranged, Podet said.

In the Lauder school for women, an Orthodox program, ordination is not an issue, as only the Reform and Conservative movements ordain women.

“We are trying to give a serious, sophisticated Jewish education to people who have asked for it,” said Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, 30, the program director.

“At the same time, between the schools in Frankfurt and in Berlin we are slowly helping develop the next generation of Jewish leaders in Germany. I think that’s a very, very important cause.”

Subjects include Hebrew language, Scripture, Jewish law and tradition, and Jewish philosophy.

The teachers are all female graduates of Jewish schools in the United States who are interested in “a year of Jewish national service,” Krauss said, adding that “Talmudic study might come later, after background knowledge is increased.”

“We encourage them to continue their secular education while we bring them to a place with a serious Jewish atmosphere,” said Krauss, a New York native.

“It’s going back to what happened in prewar Europe. There were not that many Jewish schools. But many people who went to regular school had a Jewish component after school.”

The students can commit to as little as a year of study, though it is hoped they will continue through their college years.

The women’s program is a twin to the Lauder school in Berlin, where young men have been studying since 1999.

“Once we opened that program, it was clear that you are not serving half the population,” Krauss said.

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