Immigrant Jews from eastern Europe are the primary shapers of modern Jewish life in Germany. Until recently, rabbis in Germany were mainly trained in the United States, Israel or England. That has changed. On Sept. 13 and 14, 2006, three rabbis will be ordained in the Dresden Synagogue. The three were educated at the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, outside of Berlin. It is the only institute of its kind in Germany and the first seminary to be established for rabbis in central Europe since the Holocaust.
Practice is a must
Hands-on work in the Jewish communities is required of the up-and-coming Jewish leaders. They are from Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden and even South Africa. To become rabbis, they must complete an impressive, five-year program.
"It's like a double degree," said first-semester student Adrian Schell.
The students complete a regular master's studies program in Jewish Studies at the university.
"In addition, we receive training at the Kolleg in Berlin to become rabbis," Schell said. "We learn how to approach the holy writings."
The seminarians are also instructed in questions concerning everyday life.
"We learn how to lead people in the life cycle and in liturgical worship," he said. "Even if we all have different singing abilities, we have to learn the basics."
Schell attends classes in philosophy, history, bible studies, religious history and pastoral theology at the University of Potsdam. He visits courses in psychology and counseling, and receives language training.
All of the prospective rabbis read the Torah and the Talmud -- the central writings of Judaism -- in Hebrew and Aramaic. However, all classes are held in German.
The German dilemma
The seminarians sometimes find it problematic to be educated in German, and to be receiving their training in the country that gave rise to the Holocaust. In the beginning, people were quite skeptical and cautious about having future rabbis educated in Germany, Kolleg rector Walter Homolka said. And doubts continue.
"One Dutch colleague said that he couldn't forgive me for teaching the Torah here among the ashes of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust," Homolka said. "On the other hand, pragmatically speaking, this was the only possible choice. I think the fact that we are training future rabbis here will have a multiple effect -- the seminarians can contribute to the development of a modern image of Germany in Jewish communities around the world."
Liberal Judaism, no tuition
The Abraham Geiger Kolleg is considered an educational institute of liberal, non-Orthodox Judaism -- a current whose development, particularly in the scientific area, had a great deal of influence on Central European Jews of the 19th century, Homolka said.
"The efforts of German Jews to gain recognition here as citizens, yet continue to live out their Jewish traditions -- that was a very German issue," he said. "And that is why this movement developed so much in these areas: in Austria, Hungary and Germany."
As early as the 19th century, the Berlin-based rabbi Abraham Geiger -- a theologian after whom the Kolleg is named -- tried to establish a course in Jewish theology at a German university. But it was not until 1999, with the founding of the Abraham Geiger Kolleg as part of the Universtiy of Potsdam, that it finally became possible to prepare for a career as a Jewish spiritual leader within a pluralistic atmosphere of academic freedom as offered by a university. In contrast, only Jews attend a seminary for rabbis.
But there is also one very pragmatic reason for training to become a rabbi at the Abraham Geiger Institute in Germany: unlike in the United States and England, students do not have to pay tuition at Berlin and Potsdam universities.