The first rabbis to be ordained in Germany since the Nazi era will take their vows at a synagogue in Dresden Thursday.
Groundbreaking trio: (Front row, left to right), new rabbis Daniel Alter, Malcolm Mattitiani, and Tomas Kucera.
The three men involved have just completed a five-year course of study at the Abraham Geiger College, which was founded in Berlin in 1999 amid reservations from many Jews.
"We are the only university-level training institute on continental Europe," the university's rector, Walter Homolka, told dpa news service. "There is an enormous demand for rabbis in Europe and the rest of the world."
The last Jewish seminary in Germany was shut in 1942 and no rabbis have been ordained in the country since.
Since 1991, the synagogue on Oranienburger street in Berlin has been a center of renewed Jewish life
After their ordination in Dresden on Thursday, the three rabbis will take up different posts. Czech-born Tom Kucera will be based in Munich, Daniel Alter in Oldenburg and South African Malcolm Matitani in Cape Town.
Abraham Geiger, the college's namesake, was one of the most important thinkers in liberal Judaism and was himself a rabbi in Berlin from 1870 to 1875.
Initially Jewish organizations abroad expressed reservations about rabbis being trained in Germany, according to Homolka.
"One colleague said he could not understand why we wanted to establish such an institution on the ashes of 6 million victims of the Shoa (Holocaust)," the rector said.
Kucera, who comes from the Czech Republic and who was originally a biochemistry student, admits he had mixed feelings the first time he stood in front of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate.
"Flashes from the past shot through my mind," he says. "Of course the past has to be remembered, but today it's more about the future."
Rabbis have similar duties to priests -- but not exactly the same. For instance, no incense
Kucera, 35, says he has experienced the growth of Jewish communities in his native country, but without the presence of rabbis.
"That was a major factor of motivation for me," he said, adding that he also enjoys imparting knowledge to people.
The college, which is attached to the University of Potsdam, a 30-minute journey from the German capital, means that students no longer have to travel abroad to become a rabbi, Homolka said. Many of those who went to London or the US for training never returned.
There are currently 12 students at the Berlin college, where they learn the practical work of a rabbi's duties.
Like a pastor or priest in the Christian church, a rabbi leads one or more congregations, presiding over key lifetime ceremonies like weddings and funerals for its members. He -- or she, in some liberal congregations -- leads worship services, offers counselling, and can even help to settle legal disputes among members.
German President Horst Köhler says ordination is an 'important step'
The three rabbis completed their academic training at Potsdam University, where there is a chair of rabbinical studies and liturgy.
Graduates can obtain a master's degree in Jewish studies -- a course which takes in commentaries on Jewish law, religious philosophy, religious history, sociology, liturgy, synagogue music and counselling. There are also lessons in Hebrew, Aramaic and, on request, Yiddish.
Students spend a year of the course studying at an Israeli university, and also do practical work in Jewish communities.
Köhler praises graduates
Germany today has a Jewish population of 100,000, compared to 600,000 before the start of World War II. There are some 100 Jewish communities in the country today, served by around 25 rabbis.
Meanwhile, German President Horst Köhler called the first ordination of rabbis in Germany in 64 years a special occasion.
"After the Holocaust, many people could not imagine that Jewish life would one day blossom in Germany again," Köhler said in a public statement.
He called the ordinations "an important step" to a gradual normalization and less self-consciousness. "Together we must make sure that we achieve this; remain open for change, but also continue to remember the bitter past."