Investigations and resignations pile up amid scandal within German liberal Judaism

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Investigations and resignations pile up amid scandal within German liberal Judaism

Suspected cover-up of “allegations of sexualised harassment and abuse of power” constitutes “the biggest scandal that has happened within the country's postwar Jewish community".

Homolka (centre) in 2009 at Hebrew Union College
Homolka (centre) in 2009 at Hebrew Union College

A law firm that investigated abuse charges within the Catholic church in Germany is now doing the same for the country’s main Jewish organisation, in the latest development of a mounting scandal that could topple Germany’s liberal Jewish establishment.

The Gercke Wollschläger firm will examine “allegations of sexualised harassment and abuse of power” at Abraham Geiger College, the Central Council of Jews in Germany has announced.

It is the second investigation related to allegations against Rabbi Walter Homolka, the seminary’s founder and leader, and his husband that burst into public view this month in an explosive article in Die Welt, a German newspaper.

Earlier this year, the University of Potsdam, where the seminary is housed, tasked its equal opportunity commission with investigating whether Homolka’s husband, the college’s spokesperson, sent lewd messages to students and whether Homolka or others swept evidence of misconduct under the rug, essentially by investigating themselves, as the newspaper reported.

After Die Welt’s story ran, Homolka immediately took a leave of absence from the many Jewish organisations in which he plays a role, saying that he would step back until investigations are complete. That could be some time: The university says its inquiry should conclude by August, while the Central Council of Jews in Germany said the investigation it has now commissioned will not wrap up until early 2023.

“We need an unconditional, independent and complete investigation of the allegations, particularly for the sake of possible victims,” Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement announcing the move.

Further accounts have come to light in recent weeks. Multiple students told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about troubling experiences with Homolka or his husband; all have shared their stories with college staff and the university probe.

“We must protect those affected, while at the same time achieving the greatest possible transparency,” Schuster added. “It is also important to prevent harm to the Jewish community.”

But harm has already been done, say many people with knowledge of liberal Judaism in Germany.

Born in early 19th-century Germany, the liberal movement engendered Reform Judaism in the United States. After the Holocaust, the small population of survivors in Germany was mostly Orthodox, though a few liberal congregations cropped up, led mainly by U.S. and British military chaplains in the post-war occupied zones. In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended and East and West Germany were reunited, pockets of non-Orthodox observance bloomed.

Ordained in 1997 by — among others — the German-born American Rabbi Walter Jacob, Homolka became an early leader and, in 1999, founded Abraham Geiger College together with Jacob, who became its president. A cantorial school, a second seminary for Conservative rabbinical students and a host of other institutions followed. Homolka also played a crucial role in making sure that government funding for Jewish communities would flow to liberal institutions through the Central Council, German Jewry’s main federation.

Now, the suspected coverup constitutes “the biggest scandal that has happened within the postwar Jewish community,” said Susan Neiman, an American scholar who has studied contemporary Jewish life in Germany and for the last two decades has headed the Einstein Forum, a German think tank.

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