Potsdam: School of Jewish Theology Opens

Rabbi Walter Homolka with the Brandenburg governor Dietmar Woidke, university president Oliver Günther the Israeli ambassador and other dignitaries

Europe’s First Jewish Divinity Program at a State University Opened in Germany

The opening ceremonies at the University of Potsdam (Berlin, Germany)’s  School of Jewish Theology held on November 19, 2013, represented an historic milestone in the teaching of Jewish religious thought and the training of Progressive rabbis. Closing a gap of nearly 200 years and for the first time in Europe, a state university is offering a course of study in Jewish theology – fulfilling the constitutional claim of equal footing for Jewish theology along with Christian theology and Islamic religious studies.

The opening ceremonies were moving and uplifting, with prominent representatives from politics, science and society, as well as members of different Jewish communities from Germany and abroad, including Rabbi Dr. Deborah Kahn-Harris, principal of Leo Baeck College, and Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, immediate past president of the WUPJ. Bishop Margot Käßmann, of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD), delivered the inaugural speech, and honored this very significant step together with Dr. Dietmar Woidke, governor of the state of Brandenburg , Federal State Secretary Thomas Rachel, the Israeli ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsmann, the vice president of the Central Council for Jews in Germany, Dr. Josef Schuster, and the president of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, Leslie Bergman. Mayor of Potsdam, Jann Jakobs, welcomed the School of Jewish Theology which will “enrich Jewish life and cultural cooperation in the city.”

The opening of this school was described as a “historical milestone in the training of liberal and conservative rabbis” by university president Oliver Günther.

“The light of history now shines on Potsdam,” said Johann Hafner, dean of the Faculty of Arts at Potsdam. “It is the first time that confessional studies of Judaism at a state university are possible at an academic level.”

German President Joachim Gauck called the move “a milestone in the history of science, but also in the history of German and European Judaism…In Germany, of all places, where the Jewish intelligentsia — which had such a large and irreplaceable share in the intellectual prestige of German academia — was expelled and murdered, out of all places in Germany, Jewish theology is finally given its proper role. (click here to see excerpts from President Gauck’s greetings)

” Israel’s ambassador in Berlin, Yakov Hadas-Handelsmann said: “Almost 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, we are witnessing a rebirth of Jewish life in Germany. Not only because the number of Jews here is growing, but also because Jews and Judaism are increasingly in the focus of Germans’ research interests.”

The Central Conference of American Rabbis sent congratulations via a video message of its president Rabbi Rick Block. Click here to see it: http://sebovideo.com/projects/rabbiblock/ 

With 47 students enrolled in its first class, the program is oversubscribed.The academic program is open to students of all backgrounds pursuing bachelor’s and advanced degrees in Jewish theology. All the instructors are Jewish. The school  offers with its nine full professorships a wide range of courses such as religious philosophy in antiquity, Middle Ages and modern times, liturgy and biblical interpretations, and Jewish music history. This unique program attracts young students from all over the world – Germany, Eastern Europe, Israel, and the US.

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… It combines academic study with a search for identity and the research involving one’s own family history and heritage.” After the ceremony, Rabbi Walter Homolka, the rector of the Abraham Geiger College. honored three members of the Brandenburg State Parliament for their political dedication to the institutionalization of Jewish theology at the University of Potsdam. Additional articles and information on this program appeared in many prominent media sources, such as:Deutsche Welle, Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), i24News, and The Times of Israel.

Watch an English video on the new divinity school: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3-ikdb3QZM

Photo Credit: Karla Fritze

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