‘It’s miraculous,’ local rabbi says

‘It’s miraculous,’ local rabbi says

Dream is fulfilled as new school opens in new Germany

Dr. David J. Fine, rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, was instrumental in last month’s opening of Zecharias Frankel College.

If we lived in another world, a world with a sunnier history, the fact that a Jewish seminary just opened in Germany would be very nice, but not particularly earthshaking.

We live in this world, though, this post-Shoah, post-decimation-of-European-Jewry world, so it is a very big thing.

First – and yes, it sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me – it is important to understand the structure of European universities. In Europe, would-be clerics from a range of Christian denominations are educated together at universities, and earn their ordinations separately from seminaries that are part of those universities. (Part of that model is not unlike Harvard Divinity School’s, or the Union Theological Seminary’s, although those schools do not maintain seminaries alongside their academic departments.)

In 1836, Abraham Geiger, the great German Reform theologian, proposed the formation of a Jewish seminary that would affiliate with a German university, thus providing Jews with the same sort of education their Christian neighbors had. In 1999 – a century and a half and a genocide later – the school was founded. It is part of the University of Pottsdam, affiliated with its Jewish studies program, and trains Reform rabbis and cantors.

Now, that seminary is joined by Zecharias Frankel, which was dedicated on November 17 and will train Conservative rabbis and cantors. On November 19, the school of Jewish theology was dedicated at the University of Pottsdam. Unlike its predecessor, which had been smaller-scale, less autonomous, and granted only masters’ degrees, the new school will offer doctoral degrees.

Rabbi Fine’s connection to German Jewish life is longstanding. His doctorate, from the City University of New York, is in modern German history; his dissertation was on German Jews in the German army during World War I. For the last three years, he has taught an intense inter-semester course on halachah to rabbinical students at Geiger twice a year.

About half of his students generally are German, Rabbi Fine said. The others come from across Europe; among them, “I have one student from France, one from Sweden, one from Norway, one from Hungary, and two who are Russian,” he said.

From his vantage point, Rabbi Fine has seen a resurgence of Jewish life in Germany. “There were not substantial numbers of Jews living in Germany between the Holocaust and 1990, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, the community has skyrocketed,” he said. The German government has applied Nuremberg rules – if you have a Jewish grandparent you are counted as a Jew – to applicants for residency, so Jews from the FSU have swarmed there; the economy is good and unemployment is negligible. “The Jewish population is close to half of what it had been before the economy, and the overwhelming majority of them are Russian speaking.”

Many of those Jews left Russia with very little in the way of Jewish knowledge or background, but they had a great desire for community and for religion, so Judaism in Germany also is thriving. As a result, “There is a great need for rabbis there. But it’s a hard sell for American rabbis to go hang their shingle in Germany, so basically most German Jewish communities have been hiring from Israel.”

In a twist, though, “A lot of the communities are interested in Conservative-trained rabbis. They’re not necessarily Orthodox communities.”

Therefore, continued Rabbi Fine, who is Conservative, “I thought it would be a great service to train Conservative rabbis.”

Together with Rabbi Walter Homolka, the German Reform rabbi who is rector of Geiger, Rabbi Fine worked to establish the Frankel school. He had a surprising ally – the German government. “The rabbinical program is entirely funded by the government,” he said. “Tuition is free, and there is a stipend.” The separation of church and state that we Americans hold dear does not exist in Germany; that lack of separation is not something he would prefer here, but it certainly is helpful there. “There is a real sense that being able to rebuild Jewish life in Germany is something that governments there are interested in,” he said.

Zechariah Frankel, who was a near-exact contemporary of Abraham Geiger’s – their lives spanned the first three quarters of the 19th century – was another German rabbi, the founder of the historical school that led directly to Conservative Judaism. The seminary that bears his name is part of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, itself part of that city’s American Jewish University. Frankel’s graduates will become members of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, just as Geiger’s graduates become members of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Because the two schools will be housed in the same building on the Pottsdam campus once construction is completed, and because the divisions among different branches of liberal Judaism in Europe are less marked than in the United States, they share some classes. It is possible for rabbinical students not to decide which movement they will choose to join until the end of their second year, Rabbi Fine said.

“Liberal Judaism appeals to Europeans, just as it did to Americans 100 years ago,” he said. “It is an exploration, a way to be a student of religion, and at the same time to be in an academic program in a university. Students can always go study at a yeshivah, but the idea is that a modern university education will fill needs that a yeshivah education won’t.”

He does not agree with the notion that liberal Judaism is failing. “We hear talk about Conservative Judaism failing, but I think of it more as a market correction,” he said. “The Conservative movement was much larger than it should have been, because of waves of immigration, particularly the last wave, in the 1940s and ’50s. Those were Jews who found themselves most comfortable in a Conservative synagogue because it had the trappings of tradition and they were coming from a traditional world. Now those demographics have changed.

“If you don’t just look at the demographic decline, but at the quality of what we’re offering, it’s not something to start writing requiems over,” he said.

Rabbi Fine was touched that his work in starting Frankel was acknowledged when he was honored during the dedication with the gift of the first tallit carrying the school’s logo. The second one went to Gesa Ederberg, who is rabbi of the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, where Albert Einstein once gave a violin recital, and a founding member of the General Rabbinical Conference of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

Rabbi Fine also was deeply moved by the talk Andreas Buttner, a member of the Brandenberg Assembly, gave at the dedication. “Akhshav shilamnu et hechalom shel Avraham Geiger,” the non-Jewish German politician said, in heavily accented Hebrew. “We have now fulfilled Geiger’s dream.”

“We were all excited when Clinton said ‘Shalom chaver,'” Rabbi Fine said, recalling the former president’s remarks at the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “And here was a German politician speaking in Hebrew. Not that there aren’t issues of anti-Semitism here – there are, there are those issues everywhere – but we see changes, things that were dreamed of but never fulfilled before the Holocaust, and we’ve gone even further.

“It’s miraculous,” he said.

Rabbi Walter Homolka hugs Rabbi David Fein, who has just been given the first Zacharia Frankel Seminary tall it. Tobias Barniske
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