Rabbi Dr. Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar of Rodef Shalom Congregation, traveled to Berlin to present Dr. Angela Merkel, chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, with the 2015 Abraham Geiger Award. The biannual prize, which honors meritorious service that benefits Jewish life in all its diversity, has been presented since 2000 and is bestowed by Abraham Geiger College, a rabbinic seminary in Potsdam, Germany, co-founded by Jacob.
Joining Jacob in Berlin were fellow Pittsburghers Eric Schaffer, president of Rodef Shalom, Anne Molloy, Henry Posner III and Eric Lidji.
“It was really grand,” Jacob said of the event. “There were about a thousand people in attendance in a beautiful auditorium.”
Jacob claimed that upon receiving the award, Merkel addressed the timely topic of refugees.
“She spoke very forthrightly in her interest in minorities and, for that reason, in the Geiger College, which trains rabbis and cantors for Europe.
“The second part of the speech dealt with the refugee crisis.”
“She said that there is a German obligation to respect basic human rights, to look at these people not as a class, [and she] said that there are requirements that not everyone who comes in will stay, that they had to respect German culture,” said Molloy.
Merkel claimed that welcoming so many refugees will likely change Germany but that she believed people need change, said Posner. She also addressed the German Jewish community and praised its multifaceted character as well as concerns of increased anti-Semitism.
Throughout the ceremony Jacob sat beside Merkel.
“She’s very interesting; she’s probably the leading political figure in Europe, very personable, very easy to talk to about a lot of topics,” he said.
Jacob said that the two discussed the current political situation, thoughts on terrorism, the Near East and problems that exist within the European Union.
“She was quite willing to talk,” Jacob said.
“After all, I’m not a reporter, which may have made it a little easier, and we just talked in a friendly fashion.”
Jacob and Merkel also shared their personal histories.
“I told her at the start of our conversation that I appreciated her strong interest in welcoming the refugees and all of these people because I was in that situation in 1939 on the other direction,” he said. “I was leaving Germany and happy to do so. I was leaving Germany with my parents.
“I was 8 years old and was lucky to be able to get out; otherwise, I and the rest of the family would have been a puff of smoke in the eyes of Poland.”
Jacob said that Merkel told him about growing up in the German Democratic Republic and later acquainting to life in West Germany. The acclimation process “was not easy for any of those people in the former communist Germany,” said Jacob. “She mentioned that it gave her some additional insight into what all of this means.”
Merkel’s reception of the Geiger Award was validating, said Jacob.
“This whole affair was wonderful for the Geiger College,” he said. “We are now 18 years old so we are a young school and small, and it meant a real recognition for us as a training ground for rabbinic and cantorial students and for Germany for furthering Jewish education and Jewish lives.”
According to Hartmut Bomhoff, editor of the college, the Geiger Award is granted to recognize those who have worked in the service of pluralism. “Openness, courage, tolerance and freedom of Jewish thought are the fruit of the Enlightenment,” he said. “And the award is presented to honor these values both as the basis for relations among Jews as well as relations with the larger non-Jewish society.”
Along with the award, Merkel received 10,000 euros (about $11,000), a sum that she is contributing to the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk to benefit its interfaith dialogue projects.
Seeing Jacob beside Merkel was powerful for the Pittsburgh contingent.
“To have him on the stage with the German chancellor presenting the Abraham Geiger Award was a very special and powerful moment,” said Molloy.
“It was a real thrill to be there.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.