Officials: German rabbinical school stays afloat with Pittsburgh aid

Officials: German rabbinical school stays afloat with Pittsburgh aid

While a global recession threatens the future of one or more campuses of the Reform rabbinical seminary in the United States, the only such school in Europe is actually poised for growth.
Rabbi Walter Homolka, executive director of the Abraham Geiger College at the University of Potsdam, Germany, said the school is preparing to move into its own building by 2012. It is receiving funding from all 16 states in Germany — a rare occurrence — as well as from the federal government, and it is about to ordain its second class of rabbis this year.
“Over the years, people have looked at Geiger as nice to have, but not a full partner in the rabbinic training world,” said Homolka, on a recent visit to Pittsburgh. “That has changed.”
Geiger is the first progressive rabbinic seminary in Europe since the Holocaust.
Homolka is in the States to accept an honorary doctorate at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at its ordination ceremony Sunday, May 3, but he spent this past weekend in Pittsburgh where donors have contributed substantially to Geiger since its founding in 1999.
In fact, Rabbi Walter Jacob, president of Geiger, noted that 40 percent of the 200,000 euros ($270,000) annually raised in North America to cover the living expenses of the students, comes from Pittsburgh.
“We are fortunate that in these dismal times, we are in pretty good shape,” Jacob said. “And Americans continue to be generous.”
According to Jacob and Homolka, Geiger is receiving 300,000 euros apiece from the German federal government, and all 16 German states combined; and 200,000 euros from the Central Council of Jews in Germany — 150,000 euros for the rabbinical school, and 50,000 euros for the cantorial school.
By contrast, HUC-JIR depends on tuition, private contributors and institutions for its support, which leaves it more vulnerable to financial reverses such as the current recession.
The German government also has allocated 3.3 million euros for renovation of a building on the Potsdam campus for the future home of the school; the rabbinical school currently shares facilities with Potsdam. Its future home, Homolka said, is the old gatehouse of the Prussian summer palace of Frederick the Great.
Jacob said a new library and chapel must be constructed in the 19th century gatehouse before the school moves in. Also planned, depending on the contractor bids, is a moveable glass ceiling for its courtyard.
Back in the States, HUC-JIR President Rabbi David Ellenson said in a letter to the college community earlier this month that the school faces $2.5 million to $3 million in funding cuts as a result of the Reform movement’s recent decision to reduce dues for its 900 congregations by 35 percent over three years. Also, fundraising is flat and endowments are declining.
Ellenson, who personally took a 10 percent pay cut, said the financial crisis would necessitate changes in the school’s operation. Those changes could include closing one or two of its three stateside campuses.
Homolka put the current enrollment in Geiger at 22 rabbinical students and five cantorial students. He expects the cantorial school, which is completing its first year, to grow substantially with the influx of students from the former Soviet Union, whom he considers to be more attracted to the cantorate than the
One cantor will be vested this year.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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