Rabbi Walter Jacob honored at dedication of Jewish learning center in Germany
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Rabbi Walter Jacob honored at dedication of Jewish learning center in Germany

Three European Jewish institutions united

The Walter Jacob Building: © Tobias Hopfgarten
The Walter Jacob Building: © Tobias Hopfgarten

Nearly eight decades after the collapse of the Nazi regime in Europe, German Jews and elected officials dedicated a new space for the continuance of Jewish studies and worship in Potsdam, Germany.

The new European Center for Jewish Learning at the University of Potsdam includes a synagogue, the first in post-war Potsdam; the School of Jewish Theology of the University of Potsdam; and Germany’s two rabbinical seminaries — the Abraham Geiger College, modeled on the North American Reform seminary, and the Conservative Zacharias Frankel College.

As part of the Aug. 18 dedication ceremony, the building that houses the Abraham Geiger College — the first liberal rabbinical seminary in Continental Europe since the Shoah, founded in 1999 — was named after Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus at Rodef Shalom Congregation and co-founder of the college.

The event drew nearly 250 attendees, including German President Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Minister-President of the State of Brandenburg Dietmar Woidke. German politicians, who joined European Jewish leaders as they carried Torah scrolls into newly dedicated spaces, decried antisemitism.

“It makes me angry that antisemitism, antisemitic hatred and incitement to hatred are once again openly manifesting themselves in Germany, of all places, and have been doing so for years,” said Steinmeier, according to the German Press Agency.

“Even 76 years after the end of the National Socialist terror regime, the opening of Jewish institutions and synagogues on German soil is still anything but a matter of course,” Woidke acknowledged.

Jacob, speaking from his Pittsburgh home as he was unable to travel to Germany due to pandemic restrictions, said that while the Abraham Geiger College accomplished its mission “perfectly well in much humbler quarters,” the new space “puts us into a different framework.”

Located at the University of Potsdam, the buildings housing the new European Center for Jewish Learning were built in 1769 based on plans by famed German architect Carl von Gontard, according to Hartmut Bomhoff of Abraham Geiger College.

Additionally, the historic space formerly housed a palace administrator and court gardener, and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin.”

The elaborately designed buildings welcome thousands of visitors each week, Jacob said, and now that the European Center for Jewish Learning will occupy those quarters, visitors can better appreciate the efforts to rebuild European Jewry.

What the ceremony collectively represents is that “we have succeeded in all of the things we were trying to do,” he said. “Not only do we have a rabbinic school that combines Reform and Conservative Judaism very successfully, but we also have a very good Jewish studies program at the University of Potsdam.”

The School of Jewish Theology was founded at the University of Potsdam in 2013, putting Jewish theology on equal footing with Christian and Islamic theologies at the college.

Much of Jacob’s work to rebuild post-War German Jewry occurred after he stepped down as senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom, a role in which he served for four decades.

Jacob said that having the building housing the seminary named for him is a “great honor, undeserved.”

His efforts belie typical notions of retirement, said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom.

During Jacob’s 90th birthday celebration last year, Bisno said that Jacob not only envisioned and helped build the Abraham Geiger College, but he also reestablished rabbinic education and encouraged a renaissance of Jewish life across Europe.

The Aug. 18 Potsdam-based ceremony makes clear that age and time don’t have to be impediments to accomplishment, Jacob said.

“I could have given up,” he said.

“Others could have given up. We could have said that it’s too ambitious for Europe, that it wouldn’t work. Well, all these things will work if you put the imagination and the energy into it.”

“If you really want to do something, and keep at it, it’ll happen.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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