BERLIN (JTA) — The fight over control of Germany’s Reform rabbinical school has taken a new twist — one that appears poised to shatter longstanding institutions within liberal Judaism here, and reforge them into something new.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany announced Thursday that it is bringing in an outside expert to help redesign the country’s Reform and Conservative rabbinical schools, to end the influence of a controversial Reform rabbi who stepped aside as rector amid allegations against him this spring but who remains enmeshed in the schools’ operations.
Gerhard Robbers, a professor emeritus of law and religion at the University of Trier, will consult with students and staff as he drafts the proposal, according to the Central Council, an umbrella group for all organized Jewish communities in Germany.
Robbers’ appointment came as the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany this week announced its own interim director for Abraham Geiger College, in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to preserve control by Rabbi Walter Homolka over the seminary he founded in 1999.
The Central Council announced it could no longer work with the UPJ after the group’s move to install the new interim director, a striking fracture in an alliance that Homolka himself had pressed to create two decades ago.
At the same time, the UPJ could now splinter, with those who are loyal to Homolka facing off against those who believe change is needed.
“Some member communities are now considering leaving the UPJ and reorganizing under the Central Council. We feel we are not represented any more by the UPJ,” Rebecca Seidler, head of the liberal Jewish communities of Hanover and chair of the State Association of the Jewish Communities of Lower Saxony, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
In a sign of how deeply the tensions are cutting within Germany’s small community of liberal Jews, Seidler and her mother have wound up on opposing sides of the divide. Rebecca Seidler is the daughter of Katarina Seidler, the attorney whom the UPJ named this week as new interim director of the seminary. Rebecca Seidler described the differences within her family as “very difficult.”
Sources tell JTA that there is talk of a new alliance of liberal, egalitarian communities under the Central Council’s aegis. Josef Schuster, the council’s president, confirmed as much on Thursday, telling JTA that his group is in talks with representatives from communities across Germany.
“Those that wish to step out of the UPJ will be supported intensively, and also we will support them in creating a worthy representation of liberal/progressive Judaism in Germany,“ Schuster said.
The latest developments mark a dramatic new phase in a saga that has been unfolding since May, when allegations of sexual harassment against Homolka’s husband and a possible coverup at the seminary hit the news. Ensuing investigations by the University of Potsdam, under whose auspices the rabbinical schools are organized, and by a law firm commissioned by the Central Council looked into a growing array of accusations of abuse of power by Homolka.
Both investigations concluded that there was indeed abuse of power — a finding that Homolka has vigorously denied, and that the UPJ has contested.
In a post on its website, the UPJ had officially announced that an investigation it had commissioned had concluded that there was no proof of abuse of power.
Schuster of the Central Council — which represents some 100,000 Jews in Germany, of which the UPJ says 5,000 are members of its congregations, and is responsible for distributing government subsidies and so-called “religion tax” monies to local Jewish communities — told JTA that the post had convinced him that the “the UPJ is not to be taken seriously.”
“There are two studies that actually show abuse of power, but this is an organization that continues to cover up,” he said. The post was removed Thursday.
Schuster’s frustration deepened on Tuesday, when the UPJ and seminary installed Katarina Seidler as the interim director of Geiger College, two days after an election in which allies of Homolka assumed leadership of the organization. (Homolka had announced only that day that he would not run.) Just that morning, the Central Council had been speaking with Gabriele Thöne, still Geiger College’s interim director, about a “face-saving solution” that would involve her resignation and replacement by someone without ties to Homolka.
“Anyone who thinks they can just carry on providing a rabbinical education with the old followers of Homolka, with him continuing in the background of the entity that he — and not the UPJ — founded, with all its entanglements and dependencies, has not taken seriously in any way the results of the independent investigations of the University of Potsdam and the law firm Gercke Wollschläger,” Schuster said in a statement Wednesday.
Schuster told JTA that Geiger College is set up in such a way that Homolka has retained authority despite saying that he had stepped aside.
“It is not just a feeling that he is in control,” Schuster said. “It is the case on a purely legal basis.“
As yet, there has been no formal response from Abraham Geiger College to the Central Council’s withering condemnation. But Irith Michelsohn, the UPJ’s newly elected chair, told JTA in an email Thursday that her group would “definitely try to find a basis for discussion” with the Central Council.
“Perhaps this is difficult at the moment, but we will see what the new secular year will bring,” she said.
The UPJ move apparently also caught the World Union of Progressive Judaism unawares. The same day, the group had expressed support for Thöne along with “deep sadness and sorrow” following “the recent reports about the misconduct, and the hurt to individuals and their communities.”
In an open letter, WUPJ Chair Carole Sterling and President Rabbi Sergio Bergman set out a list of priorities and said they appreciated the ongoing commitment of federal and regional German ministries and the Central Council “to continue to fund Geiger College while new structures and leadership are put in place.” They also pledged their own assistance.
Support from the Central Council for Geiger College is likely to continue, sources say.
All of the latest turmoil takes place days after the ordinations of four new rabbis and two cantors who studied at the Geiger College, which has become a symbol of the rebirth of Reform Judaism in the country of its founding. Held at the Rykestrasse Synagogue in former East Berlin, complete with organ music and a processional, the ceremony — which observers described as joyous — was likely the last before major changes to how the seminary operates.
Schuster said a new plan — with input from students, educators and rabbis, and in coordination with other major funders and the University of Potsdam — could be presented in the first quarter of 2023.
“Rabbinical training as a private business can no longer be an alternative in the future,” the statement concluded.
The announcement was welcomed by the International Masorti Movement, a partner and supporter of Zacharias Frankel College, the Conservative movement’s seminary, which like Geiger College is situated at the University of Potsdam. In a statement on Thursday, it called on all stakeholders “to listen to the voices of those who suffered from misconduct and to take the investigations of the University and of the law firm Gercke Wollschläger seriously, and work together for a new beginning, both regarding persons as well as structures.”
It is virtually assured that yet more slings and arrows will fly before all is said and done — and that Homolka continues to loom large in the organizations he built.
At the recent UPJ meeting where Homolka allies won election, “it became clear that there are two fronts in the UPJ,” Rebecca Seidler told JTA: “Those who support Homolka and want to separate from the Central Council, and those who are in favor of taking apart the existing structures, and who stand on the side of those affected.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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