It's the start of a new era. For the first time in Europe, a state university is offering a course of study in Jewish theology. Students from around the world have enrolled in the program at the University of Potsdam.
Alexander wears a yarmulke on his head, Jasmin a winning smile on her face. It's obvious the two get along well. They met at the University of Potsdam. Alexander Grodensky is from Russia but was born in Tajikistan and Jasmin Andreani, born in Tel Aviv, moved as a toddler with her parents to Berlin - back to Germany, the place her grandparents called home.
"It's very moving to me, studying Jewish theology in a German institution," Andreani said, adding that it feels like a historical moment.
Jasmin Andreani has already completed four semesters of Jewish studies at Potsdam, a more culturally scientific program. At the beginning of the winter semester, she switched paths to a new course of study: Jewish theology. She's curious about what to expect. Students began courses in October, but the School of Jewish Theology celebrates its ceremonial opening on Nov. 19. According to Andreani much is still vague about the particulars, but only the best has been guaranteed. Alexander Grodensky called the small class sizes of just five to 10 students a "luxury." This is the only opportunity to get into deep discussions with professors, he said.
The interdisciplinary Jewish Studies program was founded at the University of Potsdam in 1994 and has grown steadily over the years. Rabbis are trained at the affiliated Abraham Geiger College, which also houses a cantor seminar. Hartmut Bomhoff, public relations officer at Abraham Geiger College, said the addition of the Jewish theology program presents a unique opportunity in Europe to teach Judaism from a religious perspective
The School of Jewish Theology is currently home to six professorships to teach the more than 3,000-year spectrum of Jewish history. Topics span religious philosophy in antiquity, Middle Ages and modern times, to liturgy and biblical interpretations, to Jewish music history. The entire breadth of issues will be addressed here locally, said Hartmut Bomhoff. "We have faculty from North America and Israel, so we are on the cutting edge of research and self-reflection."
Research and family roots
Courses of study in Protestant and Catholic theology have long been commonplace at state universities in Germany. Even Islamic theology has been offered for a few years now. With the new Jewish theology curriculum, a religious-based study of Judaism at the academic level is also now a reality.
This one-of-a-kind program in Europe appears to be engaging young people from around the world. Germans, as well as Eastern Europeans, Israelis and Americans have registered for the new course of study at Potsdam. Currently, 36 have registered, though 40 are expected to participate.
According to Hartmut Bomhoff, younger generations seem to show a growing interest in researching their own Jewish roots, and they want to talk more about their heritage. For these students in particular, said Bomhoff, the program in Potsdam is especially of interest. "It combines academic study with a search for identity and the research involving one's own family history and heritage."
Palace plus cafeteria
Hartmut Bomhoff is convinced that Americans, Eastern Europeans and Israelis are eager to come to Potsdam because here, they're right in the middle of history. Between confrontations about the 20th century, both World Wars, the Holocaust and political border shifts, the program presents a lively study of the past. The program is housed in Potsdam's elegant New Palace, just outside of Berlin, where many of the students choose to live.
“The light of history now shines on Potsdam because it is the first time that confessional studies of Judaism at a state university are possible at an academic level,” said Johann Hafner, dean of the Faculty of Arts that oversees the school.
"The campus is very beautiful," said Jasmin Andreani. Especially, of course, in the summer. Students move in and out of buildings surrounding the New Palace and on the grounds of Sanssouci Park. There's also a decent cafeteria, said Andreani. "Potsdam is all right," she said slyly. "Aside from the fact that it's not directly in the heart of Berlin, it's not the worst place to study."
Soon the Jewish theology program will land its own building on campus: the former Nordtorgebäude (North Gate Building), where Prussian kings once rode by on their horses. Jasmin Andreani is looking forward to all the new things headed her way - including the exchange with those of other denominations, who can also study here. She said she hopes the program emphasizes how much Christians, Jews and Muslims have in common, adding that no religion proclaims the ultimate truth.