They’re keep­ing Ju­daism alive in Europe

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Comment - Rabbi Dow Mar­mur

The Leo Baeck Col­lege in London re­vived – in­deed saved – non-ortho­dox Ju­daism in Europe and be­yond. The Holo­caust wiped out the Lib­eral (Re­form) rab­binic sem­i­nary in Ber­lin and its Con­ser­va­tive coun­ter­part in Bres­lau (now Wro­claw in Poland). Some of the rab­bis who sur­vived led con­gre­ga­tions in ex­ile, but there was no new gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers to take their places.

Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leg­endary head of Ger­man Jewry in the Nazi pe­riod who set­tled in London after be­ing lib­er­ated from the There­sien­stadt con­cen­tra­tion camp, gath­ered around him some of his for­mer stu­dents in the Ber­lin sem­i­nary who had come as refugees to Eng­land and served con­gre­ga­tions there. They were to form the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege in London to train a new gen­er­a­tion of pro­gres­sive rab­bis and ed­u­ca­tors.

Rabbi Baeck was to de­liver the in­au­gu­ral ad­dress at its open­ing ceremony in Septem­ber 1956, but he fell ill be­fore the event and died shortly af­ter­ward. The col­lege was re­named in his mem­ory.

I came from Swe­den a year later as the first stu­dent from abroad to join the five lo­cal men around whom the col­lege was es­tab­lished. Later, other men and women en­rolled, both from Eng­land and con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Our teach­ers were mainly refugees from Ger­many who had been trained by such gi­ants of Ger­man Jewry as Martin Bu­ber and Rabbi Baeck.

Since its in­cep­tion, 185 rab­bis have been or­dained by the col­lege and another 90 women and men have re­ceived di­plo­mas in Jewish ed­u­ca­tion. They serve Re­form and Lib­eral (the two branches of pro­gres­sive Ju­daism) con­gre­ga­tions and other in­sti­tu­tions in the United King­dom, as well as Lib­eral syn­a­gogues in the Nether­lands, Ger­many, France, Switzer­land, the for­mer Soviet Union and else­where in Europe. Eng­land’s lead­ing Ma­sorti (Con­ser­va­tive) rabbi is also a Leo Baeck grad­u­ate.

With­out it, there would be no non-ortho­dox Ju­daism in Europe to­day. Most of those who nowa­days be­long to Lib­eral, Re­form and Ma­sorti con­gre­ga­tions would have been lost to Ju­daism and the Jewish Peo­ple had they not had pro­gres­sive teach­ers to guide them.

Over the years, stu­dents came also from North Amer­ica, and sev­eral grad­u­ates serve con­gre­ga­tions there to­day. At one point, there were six of them in Canada. Other grad­u­ates have found their way to Aus­tralia, South Africa, Latin Amer­ica, Is­rael and even Sin­ga­pore.

Ear­lier this month, teach­ers and grad­u­ates of the col­lege’s rab­binic and ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams came to­gether in London to cel­e­brate the col­lege’s 60th an­niver­sary. I was in London and stayed for the event.

To­day, the Leo Baeck Col­lege isn’t alone in Europe train­ing non-ortho­dox rab­bis and ed­u­ca­tors. Though a French sem­i­nary closed down not long after it was es­tab­lished in the 1950s, and a Dutch pro­gram is serv­ing lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, the Geiger Col­lege in Ber­lin, named after one of the founders of Lib­eral Ju­daism in Ger­many, was es­tab­lished some 20 years ago and is said to be thriv­ing, not least thanks to fund­ing from the Ger­man gov­ern­ment.

The Ber­lin in­sti­tu­tion has Lib­eral and Con­ser­va­tive streams, and trains both rab­bis and can­tors. Some of its grad­u­ates are ac­tive in Ger­many and in other Euro­pean coun­tries. What the Leo Baeck Col­lege pi­o­neered is be­ing aug­mented there.

De­spite the grow­ing anti-semitism in Europe, or per­haps as a re­sponse to it, non-jewish women and men, some with Jewish an­ces­try, are align­ing them­selves to the Jewish com­mu­nity in ever greater num­bers. Lib­eral and Con­ser­va­tive rab­bis make it pos­si­ble for them to em­brace Ju­daism and live Jewish lives. Sim­i­larly, gays and les­bians are ac­cepted and in­te­grated into non-ortho­dox con­gre­ga­tions.

When ex­po­nents of in­tran­si­gent Or­tho­doxy seek to dele­git­imize lib­eral ver­sions of Ju­daism, they im­plic­itly or openly thwart Jewish con­ti­nu­ity, par­tic­u­larly in the small Di­as­pora com­mu­ni­ties around the world. The col­leges in London and Ber­lin, en­cour­aged and sup­ported by the World Union for Pro­gres­sive Ju­daism, are mak­ing sure Jewish life will con­tinue there. They de­serve our en­cour­age­ment and ad­mi­ra­tion. They’re mak­ing Jewish his­tory.

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