Ordination ceremony in Poland marks milestone for Europe’s Jewish community

Ordination ceremony in Poland marks milestone for Europe’s Jewish community

It had been 75 years since the last such ceremony in Poland, but on Sept. 3, 2014, the Abraham Geiger College ordained four rabbis in the town of Wroclaw, which was once known as Breslau, Germany.

This was the first ordination ceremony in the country since the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and the first one that the seminary has ever conducted abroad from its Potsdam location.

“We usually move the ordination around to different German cities to educate the population that there are young Jews who are active and involved and that we’re not just commenting on the Holocaust and the past,” said Rabbi Walter Jacob, president of the Abraham Geiger College and rabbi emeritus and senior scholar of Rodef Shalom Congregation. “This year, we decided to go to Poland. This ordination also carried the message that there are young, active Jews and that we don’t have to always look to the past.”

The ceremony was held at the restored White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw a day after the 75th anniversary of the German attack on Poland, which led to the Holocaust and the murder of the vast majority of Polish Jews.

The Abraham Geiger College was established in 1999 at the University of Potsdam. Its graduates serve Jewish communities throughout Europe and beyond, including South Africa. It is the first liberal rabbinical seminary in continental Europe since the Holocaust.

The college attracts students from all over the world, and classes are conducted in German, said Jacob. Like all other German universities, there is no tuition. Many of the students return to their home countries to serve following their ordination, but some opt to stay in Germany.

The school currently has 43 students from all over Europe, Jacob said, and trains cantors as well.

The four new rabbis ordained last summer were from Russia, Paraguay, France and Germany. While none will be serving in Poland, Jacob said that the college currently has one Polish student enrolled who will return to Poland to serve once he is ordained.

There are four or five cities in Poland with small, but active congregations, according to Jacob, but they do not all have rabbis.

“They are growing slowly,” he said. “The memory of the past is very vivid in Poland. It’s got to be.”

The ordination marked the 15th anniversary of the Geiger College, Jacob noted, adding that the program is now fully integrated into the University of Potsdam, granting the students greater access to faculty and other resources.

The event also celebrated the launch of a “more Conservative” division of Geiger College, adding another option to its established “progressive, liberal, Reform program,” Jacob said.

Finally, the celebration also marked the establishment of the Jewish School of Theology at the University of Potsdam.

“For the last 150 years at several German universities, there have been departments of Catholic studies and Protestant studies,” Jacob said. “Now, a Jewish department of theology has been established, and it is completely funded by the German government.”

The program currently has four senior professors and six junior professors.

“After we are totally staffed, we will be on par with the largest and best programs anywhere in the world,” said Jacob.

Jacob, 84, travels to Potsdam twice a year to mentor the students and to teach. Earlier this month, he returned from a four-week stay at the school where he taught a course on responsa.

The ordination ceremony drew a crowd of about 500 attendees — about half who traveled there from Germany. Most of those there “had no idea what an ordination was,” Jacob said.

The crowd included leaders of the Polish community as well as “just people who wanted to see what happens at an ordination,” he added.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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