POTSDAM, Germany (RNS) On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, the Jewish synagogue in this elegant town of wide boulevards and baroque palaces was plundered by the Nazis. By the end of World War II, only two Jews remained. And in 1958, the shell of the old synagogue was torn town and replaced with an apartment building.
But these days, the city, about 22 miles southwest of Berlin, is gaining new prominence, as a center of Jewish learning. Last month the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam opened to great fanfare. It will join the Abraham Geiger College, a rabbinical seminary affiliated with the Reform movement that opened in 1999, along with the brand-new Zacharias Frankel College, Europe’s first rabbinical seminary for Conservative Judaism, which opened in Postdam last month as well.
But it’s the School of Jewish Theology, which will offer degrees on equal footing with other university disciplines, that is getting the most attention.
“Jewish theology has not yet been taught as an academic subject at a European university — anywhere,” said Rabbi Walter Homolka, rector of Potsdam’s Abraham Geiger College and a longtime advocate for the new program.
The new school plans to offer classes in Talmudic exegesis, religious philosophy and even Jewish music. It plans to grant degrees in Jewish studies to students of all faiths — so far 71 have applied for 46 slots.
“This is something that young people are interested in studying, despite the lingering question ‘what kind of job can I get with this degree,’” Homolka told a German radio station.
Jasmin Bruck, whose family moved from Tel Aviv to Berlin in 1985, almost 50 years after her grandparents fled Nazi persecution, switched from studying law to Jewish theology. She wants to become a rabbi, and this program, which works closely with the Abraham Geiger College, will give her that opportunity.
Although Reform and Conservative Jewish movements in the United States have ordained women for decades, they are still rare in Europe.
“Ten years ago the idea of a woman as chancellor was extraordinary but not anymore,” she said referring to Angela Merkel, the German leader. “I hope that it will be the same with women as rabbis.”
The new schools are picking up where the Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism left off when it was closed by the Nazis in 1942. That was a private school not recognized by the state.
The theology school will cooperate with the city’s two other Jewish educational offerings — the Institute for Jewish and Religious Studies and the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies — which focus on interreligious dialogue and European-Jewish history, respectively.
“The School of Jewish Theology is a milestone from an interreligious perspective,” said Johann Hafner, dean of the Faculty of Arts at the university. “For one, because it is the first time that Jewish academic theologians are being trained in Germany, and, secondly, because its professors are partners for the upcoming dialogue about comparative theology.”
The interreligious aspect drew Bruck to the school. She said she is looking forward to “the exchange with people who are interested in Judaism although they are not Jews themselves.”
Meanwhile, Potsdam’s effort to become a stronghold of Jewish studies aligns with the government’s larger goal of training religious leaders from the major monotheistic faiths.
It’s a tradition that dates back 200 years — but only recently has Germany extended financing beyond Christianity to both the country’s Jewish and Islamic communities.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in in the United States, the German government launched a program at the universities of Osnabrueck, Muenster and Tuebingen to educate German imams rather than rely on imports from Muslim countries.
In the case of the new Jewish institutes, however, the motivation was different.
State-financed Judaism has as its mission the preservation and rebuilding of Jewish life in Germany in the wake of the Holocaust, according to Hartmut Bomhoff, a spokesman for the Abraham Geiger College.
Today, Germany’s 115,000 Jews form 105 communities. It’s a growing group that will need more rabbis and cantors — many of whom will presumably study in Potsdam.
Supporting the growing Jewish community is exactly why Phoenix native Maximilian Feldhake decided to study to become a rabbi at the newly founded school.
“Jewish life in Germany has been growing again for 20 years and I want to be a part of this development and contribute to it,” he said.
Feldhake converted to Judaism at 17, and moved to Germany a year ago.
Once he finishes his rabbinical studies, he plans to stay in Germany and work as a rabbi to help combat growing problems with far-right groups.
For some Jewish leaders, the very founding of this school speaks to the strides that Germany has made to distance itself from the horrors of its past.
“There are problems, of course,” said Josef Schuster, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “But it’s a lot easier to live openly as a Jew in Germany today than in many other EU (European Union) states.”
Still, a recent poll by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights showed that 63 percent of Jewish people living in Germany have avoided wearing identifying Jewish symbols, such as a yarmulke. The study also revealed that 25 percent of German Jews have entertained leaving because of concerns for their safety.
Some hope the new institutions will help counter that.
YS/AMB END SCATURRO