Potsdam – Whoever enters the corner office of the rector of the Potsdam Abraham Geiger College, Rabbi Walter Homolka, sees the success of the man on the wall: numerous orders are on display in glass cases from Luxembourg, France and Germany. Two large photographs hang on the wall, in which the Potsdam theologian shakes hands with the popes: Benedict XVI. as does Francis. And on the desk is the national flag of Rwanda. Because Homolka is also the honorary consul of the African country.
The Potsdam rabbi built up a broad network: without him there would be no Jewish theology at the university. And anyone in Germany who is interested in liberal Jewish theology cannot ignore him: Homolka is not only by far the best-known German rabbi, he is also chairman of the board of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, the Ernst-Ludwig-Ehrlich-Studienwerk and has numerous other honorary posts.
On Friday, however, the Potsdam rabbi’s winning streak seems to have broken: he is retiring from his posts for the time being. The reason: The daily newspaper “Die Welt” published serious allegations against Homolka and the Geiger College. The rabbi’s husband, who himself worked as a lecturer at the college, sent a sexually harassing video to a student in 2019. It shows an erect penis. Homolka and his husband are said to have initially confirmed this, but a few days later a lawyer’s office is said to have tried to stop reporting.
Jonathan Schorsch, professor at the Institute for Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Potsdam, also stated that he had been notified of further cases of misconduct, including sexual harassment. There is said to have been a commission of inquiry at the Abraham-Geiger-College, which in the end only recommended a mediation process. As the report in the “Welt” says, this is also a consequence of Homolka’s strong position: the newspaper accuses him of blatant abuse of power. A “climate of fear” is said to prevail at the Abraham Geiger College. Through his network, Homolka can distribute funds and posts – and decide on professional success as well as on the end of careers. In addition, his CV on the website of the General Rabbinical Conference is incorrect: he was not ordained at Leo Baeck College, but rather by Rabbi Walter Jacob in Pittsburgh.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany expressed its horror on Friday. “We are shocked to learn that, according to research by ‘Welt’, there are said to have been several cases of sexual harassment at the Abraham Geiger College,” said Central Council President Josef Schuster. “Such news about a training center for rabbis horrifies me.” It is essential that the entire situation be clarified as quickly and comprehensively as possible. “This can only be done by experts who are independent of the Abraham Geiger College.”
The first female Jewish cantor in Germany, Avitall Gerstetter, also became clear. “The revelations about Rabbi Walter Homolka, his husband and the Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam are shocking and shameful,” said Gerstetter on Friday when asked by this newspaper. “The behavior that has now been uncovered is a serious blow to liberal Judaism in Germany.” “The obvious abuse of power must come to an end,” said Gerstetter. “A fresh start is urgently needed, not only in Potsdam, structurally and in terms of personnel.”
In the Brandenburg state capital, people are also looking with concern at the previous flagship project, the Abraham Geiger College, which state politicians have often and happily adorned themselves with in the past. A spokesman for Science Minister Manja Schüle (SPD) said on Friday that the minister took the allegations very seriously. She assumes that the allegations will be clarified comprehensively and independently by the University of Potsdam. The university, however, seems to have known about the allegations for some time. University President Oliver Günther set up a six-person commission of inquiry a few weeks ago, according to a statement from the university. A report should be available by August 2022. With its final report to the President, the Commission will present concrete recommendations and proposals for further action.
Homolka himself expressed concern in a statement sent by the Chancellor of the Abraham Geiger College, Anne Brenker. “In light of the allegations made in the press today, I would like to express my personal dismay,” said Homolka. “It hurts to have to read such things.” He himself has devoted his entire life to serving liberal Judaism and has tried to “promote opportunities to deal with the Jewish tradition creatively and without fear and to engage in it in a variety of ways Involving Jewish community life.” However, there are also opponents who do not like what is being done.