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Postwar Germany Sees a First with Upcoming Rabbinic Ordinations

September 13, 2006
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For the first time in the postwar era, rabbis are to be ordained in Germany. In a ceremony in Dresden, Daniel Alter, Tomas Kucera and Malcolm Matitiani will receive their ordination Sept. 14 from the Abraham Geiger College for the Training of Rabbis for Europe.

Many see the ordinations as part of a postwar resurgence of Judaism in Germany.

The country’s Jewish population has more than quadrupled since 1990 thanks to the influx of former Soviet Jews. That led to the building of new synagogues and Jewish schools.

This fall, a new Jewish community center will open in Munich, symbolizing what many see as a new willingness of Jews in postwar Germany to come out of hiding.

Meanwhile, the need for a seminary is urgent, with about 20 rabbis spread out over more than 80 congregations. In 1999, the Central Council of Jews in Germany lent its support to the Geiger College.

“We urgently need rabbinical leadership,” Jan Muehlstein, chair of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, told JTA by e-mail. The new rabbis will help “close the gap created by the Shoah, a gap that is painfully evident, even more so today as we lose the last generation of rabbis who personally were connected with prewar Jewish life in Germany.”

In 1836, Abraham Geiger, a founder of Reform Judaism, called for the establishment of a Jewish theological department at a German university. This inspired the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau in 1854 and the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin in 1870. The Nazis shut down both institutions.

The Abraham Geiger College for the Training of Rabbis for Europe, which opened six years ago, is affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism and is an institute at the University of Potsdam, just outside Berlin.

The ordination is being hosted by the central council and the Jewish Community of Dresden. Guests at the New Synagogue in Dresden will include Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the event a “day of recognition and joy” as well as “a moment of hope that these first rabbis” will be “followed by many more.”

The three graduates expressed excitement.

“I am always surprised when people say I am going to be one of the first three,” Kucera said in an interview earlier this summer.

The public event pales in comparison to “the new life that is coming for me,” said Kucera, 36, who will serve Beth Shalom, a liberal Jewish congregation in Munich.

Kucera left his native Czech Republic in 1989 and earned a doctorate in biochemistry in Germany, followed by a research residency in Nashville. There he “saw the spectrum of Jewish life” and was drawn to it.

He entered Abraham Geiger College in 2002. Kucera’s rabbinical dissertation focuses on abortion and the Jewish concept of the soul.

Science and religion go together, he says: “When I was younger, I tried to separate the two.”

His greatest immediate challenge will be “just to know all the people” in his congregation, “to listen to their needs. They never had a full-time rabbi.”

In the long term, he hopes to learn “how to attract people to the synagogue who somehow identify as Jews but don’t come to services,” and eventually even to help with matchmaking.

Matitiani, 38, left the kitchen to become a rabbi. Living in Pretoria, South Africa, he had a successful catering business, but he also was teaching bar mitzvah students and leading services at his synagogue. When the congregants needed a rabbi, they asked him to fill in.

Now he will become one of two rabbis at South Africa’s largest progressive congregation, Temple Israel of Cape Town, serving some 1,000 families.

“It has been a long road, and it will be nice when I have that piece of paper, that title,” he said in an interview at the college this summer. “I was always referred to as a ‘student rabbi.’ “

“And the congregants will also be happy,” added Matitiani, who has shuttled between South Africa and Germany. “They have gone through the process with me. In a sense, I’ve got an extended family.”

The congregation reflects “the rainbow nature of South Africa,” he added. “With apartheid over, it’s not illegal to cross race boundaries, so we have many conversions and marriages. It’s wonderful,” said Matitiani, whose dissertation deals with midrashic views on intermarriage.

Alter, 47, was born in Germany — his parents met at a Displaced Persons camp near Nuremberg. He will move to Oldenburg, where Alter will serve some 330 members. He also will continue to serve a small congregation at Delmenhorst, with about 250 members. In both towns, he has been serving as a student rabbi.

Alter’s interest in Judaism was sparked by a sermon of Rabbi Eli Seidmann, a former U.S. Army chaplain in Germany. The theme was “Keep your eye on the ball!” Alter recalled.

“The whole sermon was built on this baseball term. And I was a huge sports fan,” he said. The sermon “made it clear to me what was missing from my life,” said Alter, whose family was “not very religious.”

His wife, Hannah, encouraged him to pursue the rabbinate, to make something of his “love for people, for my religion and my belief in God. It gives me the chance to give to other people some of what religion gives me.”

Alter, who wrote his rabbinic dissertation on the ban on committing offenses to animals, said he knows he’s part of a historic event, but would have preferred it otherwise. He wishes “there could have been hundreds of rabbis ordained in Germany over the past 70 years.”

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