Walter Homolka, a Bavarian rector whose professional existence has undergone myriad rebirths, was in Pittsburgh recently to discuss the recent resurgence of Jewish life in Germany.
“The central question in my personal and professional life is why to live a Jewish life in Germany,” Homolka said. “That’s been a striking question for people since the 1980s.”
In the decades following the Shoah, Jews who remained in Germany often maintained negative self-perceptions, said Homolka. “Before the 1980s, people said, ‘I am stranded here,’ or ‘I am a survivor or the son of a survivor.’”
However, during the 1980s, “people tried to figure out what it means to be Jewish apart from being a group of victims.”
That notion of the German Jewish conscience was coupled by the journey of emigrating Russian Jews, as well as the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, said Homolka. “There was a lot of searching in the 1990s by a Jewish community that had become consolidated.”
While the 1980s and 1990s welcomed a changing German Jewry, Homolka did not formally join professional Jewish life until 2003. Although he received a degree in divinity in 1986, Homolka spent nearly two decades pursuing alternative professions.
“In 1986, the question was, as a reform rabbi, could I work in Germany?” he said.
Unable to answer that inquiry, Homolka began his professional pilgrimage at a Munich-based bank. Though trained as a theologian, he was mistakenly placed in the investment banking department. Homolka enjoyed the work, but after about two weeks, the bank realized its error and sought to move him to a division better suited to his skills.
Homolka said that the department head of investment banking refused to allow the company to make the switch and eventually offered Homolka a job. After reflecting on his prospects as a German rabbi, Homolka elected to stay.
In the following years, Homolka’s professional pursuits took him further from the rabbinate. After leaving banking, he became chief of staff to the CEO of Random House, then executive director of Greenpeace Germany and finally head of corporate giving at Deutsche Bank.
Homolka formally returned to the rabbinical fray in 2002 when he became executive director of the Abraham Geiger College, Europe’s reform rabbinical seminary.
“And here Walter Jacob was very influential,” he said.
In 1999, Jacob, now rabbi emeritus and senior scholar of Rodef Shalom Congregation, had founded the Abraham Geiger College, a rabbinic seminary at the University of Potsdam in Potsdam, Germany.
“He conveyed that Judaism needed me,” said Homolka. “The position allowed me to confront the Jewish establishment and make it clear that they [Orthodoxy] did not own the right of how to define who is Jewish.”
Without a separation of church and state, as in the United States, the question of who was Jewish was critical in Germany.
“It was important because the German government provides funding,” said Homolka.
So while employing decades of acquired boardroom skills, Homolka maneuvered legal and authoritative blockades.
“It was a hilarious time of counting who is Jewish and who belongs to what congregation,” he said.
In his recent Pittsburgh presentation, Homolka claimed that between 1990 and 2015 the German Jewish population grew from 29,089 to 99,695.
That growth, which created a “new playing field for Judaism,” was achieved through education and eliminating boundaries, he explained.
“It can’t be that Orthodoxy is the only one answer and everything else is diluted. We are creating many ways to be Jewish. If you want to be Jewish, we will find a way for you to be Jewish,” said Homolka, who now serves as rector of the college.
Along with discovering Judaism, remaining Jewish should be done so positively, he said.
“In previous decades, the outside world told you that you were a Jew, but nowadays it is totally left on everyone whether Judaism is meaningful. We don’t carry the yellow star anymore.”
But by opening the boundaries of German Jewry, Homolka has had to deal with sustaining growth.
“Nowadays we have mixed-marriage rates of over 70 percent in America,” he said. “The only way to deal with that is to tell people why it is important to stay on.”
Tactics that he has employed include advising German Jews who to marry, where to send their children to school and who to “mingle with.”
“It is not a natural given; when you were in the ghetto there was no other option,” Homolka said. “In Germany, it’s a particularly striking question of why you should live a Jewish life. Let’s face it, being Jewish is not that easy.”
And with recognition of the sizable task at hand, Homolka greater appreciates the road that he has taken.
“All these skills that I picked up that you might think are unrelated, the inner logic is, without those experiences I would not be able to challenge an existing structure and change it,” he said.
“The experience that I had in the boardroom, the boldness to change, created competition on the German Jewish market.”
Americans should recognize the benefit of diversity, said Homolka. It’s akin to the “Starbucks experience.”
“Why would you just stick with one type of coffee when you could modulate your own experience,” he said.
Likening coffee to creed, Homolka concluded: “I think by giving people choices you keep them in. By not giving them choices you drive them out, and for the survival of Judaism that is lethal.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.