The Power of Partnership: WRJ and Abraham Geiger College
-By Walter Holmolka, Rector, Abraham Geiger College
In 1942, the Nazis closed the "Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums" in Berlin. It was the end of an era that had begun in 1836 with Abraham Geiger's call for the founding of a Jewish theological department at a German university. In 1870 Abraham Geiger had moved from Frankfurt to Berlin to become one of the founders of the first liberal rabbinical seminary. He taught there until his death in 1874. Later, Regina Jonas studied at the "Hochschule" in Berlin to become the first liberal woman rabbi ever in 1935.
In Reform Judaism, women's lib had started with Abraham Geiger, a fervent advocate of co-education of girls and boys. Since 1837 Geiger had pushed for women's inclusion into the service and the introduction of confirmation predominantly to assure a celebration of the coming of age of Jewish youngsters in the spirit of equality. He himself could marry his wife Emily Oppenheim only in 1840 after an engagement period of almost seven years. The Frankfurt municipality at the time permitted two Jewish marriages per year only. It was in this situation of predicament that Geiger formulated his vision of equality and reform.
On May 25, 2010 a national commemoration plaque was finally unveiled in Berlin, Germany's capital, to mark the bicentenary of Rabbi Abraham Geiger (1810 - 1874) the patron of the Abraham Geiger College (click here to watch a video of the presentation). This progressive rabbinical seminary was founded in 1999 to train rabbis for Europe in Geiger's spirit. Abraham Geiger had envisioned a school both dedicated to Jewish tradition and committed to the principle of academic freedom. It is the first liberal rabbinical school in Continental Europe since the Shoah.
At the unveiling family was present, among them Andrea Lissner, Abraham Geiger's great granddaughter, and the deputy leader of Germany's federal parliament, Petra Pau. Another woman present was Lala Suesskind, the chairwoman of Germany's biggest Jewish community, Berlin, with some 12.000 members.
In 2008, the leadership of WRJ met her and other leading women in Germany's Jewish community at a lunch given by the World Union for progressive Judaism and the Abraham Geiger College to celebrate the power of sisterhood and the partnership of the Abraham Geiger College with WRJ. Lynn Magid Lazar, Shelley Lindauer and Rosanne Selfon had come to attend the award ceremony of the Abraham Geiger College for Prince Hassan of Jordan and show their dedication to the Abraham Geiger College.
The WRJ YES fund regularly supports Geiger students in their endeavor to become rabbis and cantors. I, myself, was a beneficiary of the WRJ YES fund at the time of my rabbinical studies and am now the Rector of the College. Without the YES fund support and the solidarity of Women for Reform Judaism neither I myself could have finished my studies nor would any of our students be able to do so. It is the dedication of WRJ to rabbinic training that makes a tremendous contribution to Reform Judaism as a global family.
When the Abraham Geiger College added cantorial studies to its programme in 2007 the WRJ YES fund gave the founding gift for the WRJ music library to allow the cantorial school to flourish. The YES fund said YES, when others say NO. It is this combination of confidence, empowerment and solidarity which makes the WRJ our prime partners in shaping the Jewish world here in Europe. And we simply cherish the personal friendships.
One more sign of immediate help was the present of a Torah Scroll of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster PA at the WRJ biennial in San Diego in 2007. The local sisterhood under the guidance of then WRJ President Rosanne Selfon had initiated this unique link with Abraham Geiger College. Since then the College chapel houses this scroll as a significant part of the College's spiritual life. Over the years many students have prayed in this chapel and prepared for their congregational duties. They now serve on three continents: in Cape Town, Barcelona, Berlin, Hanover, Prague, Munich and Los Angeles.
This autumn the first woman to be educated and ordained in Germany will graduate: Alina Treyher has benefited from the YES fund scholarship of WRJ and shall be ordained in Erfurt, Thuringia's capital, next October. Germany's head of state has indicated the intention to be present to mark the bicentenary of Reform Judaism and will witness this special ordination. Alina originates from Poltova in the Ucraine. "I could not have studied for the rabbinate without the WRJ YES fund - even though Abraham Geiger College does not charge any tuition fees and partners with the YES fund by giving a matching gift for living expenses. I am very grateful for WRJ's women to have supported me so that my life's ambition finally will become reality this autumn. Thank you so very much!." Alina who is married to another rabbinical student, Jonah Simon, will become the rabbi of Oldenburg in 2011.
Lynn Magid Lazar, the president of the WRJ, recently summarized how she feels about WRJ and Geiger: "Women of Reform Judaism is blessed to share the joys and accomplishments of all that we do together with Abraham Geiger College. WRJ, since its inception in 1913, has been working to ensure a future for Reform Judaism and to make our world a better place – tikkun olam. The power of women working in our world - the power of sisterhood - is no less important today than it was in 1913. We look forward to enriching our partnership as we join together – stronger together."
The success story of the Abraham Geiger College and the dedicated work of its graduates all over Europe and in other parts of the world illustrates well what this means: the power of women can change the world significantly, it can inspire, repair, and heal.
More information on Abraham Geiger College can be found on their website: www.abraham-geiger-kolleg.de.