|Rabbis David J. Fine, left, and Daniel Freelander at the site of the original Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau.|
History reverberated, ironies abounded, and hope fluttered its wings at the annual ordination exercise at Abraham Geiger College, held this year in Wroclaw, Poland.
Dr. David J. Fine, the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, the new president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, both live in Ridgewood. They are casual friends, but Rabbi Fine is Conservative, Rabbi Freelander is Reform, they both have busy professional and personal lives, and they rarely have time to meet.
But there they both were in Wroclaw, celebrating the ordination of Reform and Progressive rabbinical students from Geiger, which is based in Potsdam, Germany.
In order for this story to make sense, you have to know that European universities and seminaries are not structured in the same way as many are here, as independent institutions. In Europe, aspiring Protestant clerics receive some of their education – the general part – at universities, where they study together with peers from other parts of the Protestant world. Their denomination-specific education comes from seminaries, and they graduate from both.
The influential German theologian Rabbi Abraham Geiger proposed such a relationship between the Reform movement and the University of Pottsdam. He made that suggestion before World War II; in 1999, the first class of rabbis graduated from Pottsdam and Geiger. Last year, a Conservative seminary, Zecharias Frankel College, admitted its first class of rabbinical students. Like their Reform counterparts, Zecharias students are affiliated with the University of Pottsdam.
Following so far?
Geiger just graduated its 15th class of students, who are now newly ordained rabbis, and marked their graduation with four days of speeches, receptions, and academic festivities. This year, as every year, Geiger held its ordination in a different city; and this year, for the first time, it was outside Germany.
Rabbi Fine, whose ordination is from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, earned his doctorate in German history from the City University of New York. His dissertation looked at German Jewish soldiers who served their fatherland during World War I. For the last few years, he has taught an intense but short course at Geiger, so this year, when four of the five rabbinical students to be ordained were his students, of course he was there as well.
Of the four students – three men and one woman – one was from Germany, one from France, and one, who is Russian-born, made aliyah to Israel when she was 12. The fourth was born in Paraguay, grew up in Israel, and now lives in Sweden. Of the new cantors – two women and one man – two are Russian and one is Israeli, he said.
Wroclaw – which also is known as Breslau – has been traded between Austria, Germany, and Poland for centuries. It had been part of Germany from the 19th century until the end of World War II, and with Berlin and Frankfurt one of that country’s main cities. “According to some historians, the loss of Breslau” – as it was called then – “was even more traumatic to Germany than the partition into East and West,” Rabbi Fine said. “It was the equivalent of what losing Chicago would be to us.” But after the war, eastern European countries basically moved over a bit to the left on the map. “Parts of eastern Poland went to Russia, and in compensation, Poland got some of Germany.” That included Breslau, which was a cosmopolitan hub, “the meeting point of so many cultures and nations,” Rabbi Fine said.
“And it is such a beautiful city! When I first got there, it was dreary – dark and rainy – but by the time we left, the sun had come out and we could see how beautiful it really is, and it has one of the biggest and most beautiful central squares in Eastern Europe.”
But the ordination was not held in Wroclaw because of its beauty, but for other reasons. One is its Jewish connections. The city had been overwhelmingly Jewish. It was where Abraham Geiger lived for most of his life, and where the first liberal seminary in Europe opened in 1874. Rabbi Geiger was passed over to head that seminary and soon decamped to Berlin, where a newer and more liberal seminary opened, but his name is strongly associated with Breslau.
Another reason to hold the ordination there on September 1 was because on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II officially began. “German-Polish relations, German-Jewish relations, Polish-Jewish relations – all fissured and were destroyed in World War II,” Rabbi Fine said. “Here, we brought all three groups together again,” in the city where it all began.
Guests at the ordination included Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Poland’s Secretary of State, Ministry of Administration and Digitization, Stanislaw Huskowski. (As he detailed the Pole’s eccentric job title, Rabbi Fine said that it was typical of Poland today, with its mixture of old buildings, bureaucracy, and spare, chic modernity. “The hotel I stayed in was the most super modern contemporary hotel I have ever seen,” he said.)
Rabbi Freelander also spoke at the ordination, and took away strong impressions from it. “For me, the most powerful moment was the address of the German foreign minister, Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier,” he said. He quoted from Dr. Steinmeier’s speech: “‘We are witnessing an event that only a few years ago would have been inconceivable: 75 years after Germany’s criminal invasion of Poland, almost on the exact day, Germans and Poles are jointly celebrating the renaissance of Jewish life in Poland.
“‘It is good news that the collapse of civilization in the Shoah did not mean the end of Jewish life in Germany. They are a tremendous asset for us all.’
“It would have been one thing for a Jewish leader to mark this moment,” Rabbi Freelander said. “But these words from a top German governmental official made the ordination and its implications so much more powerful.”
The use of language also was telling. At a reception at the German consulate, “the German consul spoke in Polish first, then repeated it in German, and then in English. The rest of it was in English,” which is the world’s commonly accepted and understood international language.
Rabbi Freelander paid tribute to Hebrew Union College professor Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, as well as speaking at the ordination. Rabbi Fine spoke at an associated event, the 160th anniversary of the founding of the seminary in Wroclaw. That school, the one that passed over Abraham Geiger for being too liberal, was the Jewish Theological Seminary, the school that the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in northern Manhattan, claims as its inspiration.
“While the denominational differences were not as distinct then as they are now, nevertheless there is a strong connection between JTSA and the mythological memory of the original seminary,” he said.
“There is a joke in the seminary” – the one in Manhattan, that is – “that sometimes email meant for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America but sent incorrectly to jts.edu rather than jtsa goes to the Jesuit Theological Seminary in Georgia,” Rabbi Fine said. “Of course, in Wroclaw I had to say Georgia in America, not the one next to Russia,” he added.
But “when we see the denominational lines in 19th century Jewish history, we are reading back from our own history, and mythologizing. In the Conservative movement’s self-understanding, there is a sense that our JTS in New York follows the Breslau model, and that’s why it has the same name. But the name is a coincidence.”
Because the denominational boundaries were far more nebulous and less land-mined than they are now, crossover was easy and frequent. In truth, many liberal rabbis studied at Orthodox seminaries, and some Orthodox rabbis came from more liberal schools.
On the one hand, there are no direct lines from the seminary in Breslau and the one in New York. The Breslau seminary was a very serious and very German school. “The Nazis closed it in 1938, but the professors wanted to graduate the rabbinical students in their senior year. They had finished their coursework, but they hadn’t finished their exams. They weren’t allowed to gather publicly, so the students went individually to the homes of each of their professors to take their exams, and each of the professors signed off on them. Everyone passed.
“And then the seminary ceased to exist.
“It was such a German Jewish story. They had to take their exams. It was a sign of spiritual resistance.”
But even if there is not much truth to the idea that the Jewish Theological Seminary of America is the direct spiritual descendant of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, “it is important for all the liberal movements – all the non-Orthodox movements – and even the whole non-charedi world – everyone who does applied critical biblical studies. We all are affected by the discipline of modern Jewish studies. The seminary in Breslau was the first institution to have it.”
The space in Wroclaw where the seminary once stood is now a parking lot, marked just by a plaque. “There are a lot of places in Europe where there is an empty space on a block,” Rabbi Fine said. Most of those places once were filled by buildings that were bombed to rubble. “It is very poignant. It was such an important place.”
But now those empty spaces are being filled. Wroclaw’s White Stork synagogue has been renovated. Geiger is well into its second decade, and in a few years Frankel will ordain students as well. Jewish life in Europe is not easy – and certainly new threats pose formidable new challenges – but there are many signs of life and hope. Or, as Rabbi Fine said in his speech in Wroclaw, “Jewish continuity, through the teaching and study of Torah, is what keeps us alive despite and through all challenges.
“This is the eternal legacy of Frankel’s seminary. May its memory be for a blessing.”