By Toby Axelrod
A law firm that investigated abuse charges within the Catholic church in Germany is now doing the same for the country’s main Jewish organization, in the latest development of a mounting scandal that could topple Germany’s liberal Jewish establishment.
The Gercke Wollschläger firm will examine “allegations of sexualized harassment and abuse of power” at Abraham Geiger College, the Central Council of Jews in Germany announced last week.
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 May 6 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 organizations 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.
The allegations about possible sexual harassment by Homolka’s husband at the college Homolka co-founded, she said, “are really only the tip of the iceberg.”
Changes have already taken place at Geiger College and related institutions in response to the scandal.
The Geiger seminary had been set up as a nonprofit owned by Homolka. On Friday, the seminary announced that complete ownership had been transferred to the Leo Baeck Foundation, a Potsdam-based group that previously owned a minority share. (Homolka had chaired the foundation’s board until after the Die Welt article appeared.) Notably, there is still an overlap in leadership: The acting chair of the Leo Baeck Foundation is Anne-Margarete Brenker, who is also chancellor of the seminary.
The college also appointed an interim leader, a former finance secretary for the state of Berlin, Gabriele Thöne. She is charged with restructuring the seminary in response to the issues raised by the allegations, the school announced.
Privately, sources say they expect more changes, including personnel changes. Already, the executive director of the School of Jewish Theology, a division of the University of Potsdam, has stepped down.
Daniel Krochmalnik lamented in an email announcing his resignation last week that the mounting scandal was doing “public damage to the [college] and its director.” He said he had urged people with criticism of Abraham Geiger College to air them only internally but was not successful in convincing them.
The School of Jewish Theology — together with the Geiger seminary and the Conservative seminary, Zacharias Frankel College — is part of the university’s European Center for Jewish Learning; Homolka has played a role in all three.
“We have a glorious new building and a ruined public image,” Daniel Krochmalnik said in his resignation letter, which did not mention the students who had reported abuse.
Meanwhile, leaders of many organizations that Homolka helped build — including some of the nearly 30 liberal Jewish communities across the country and in Austria — have publicly distanced themselves from him, and some have called for his resignation.
The Chawurah Gescher community in Freiburg called for Homolka’s immediate resignation as chair of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany. Göttingen’s liberal Jewish community — referring to “psychological injuries to the individuals affected” — said that “structural abuse of power” is “incompatible with liberal Judaism.”
Hanover’s liberal congregation said it was “appalled by the accusations” and demanded not just a leave of absence but “the resignation of Walter Homolka from all his positions,” to “minimize the damage to liberal Judaism in Germany and … out of solidarity with those affected.”
Not all groups are calling for Homolka’s resignation right now. “The presumption of innocence applies,” noted the General Rabbinical Conference, a non-Orthodox professional association known as ARK, of which Homolka is a member. In a statement, the ARK board demanded a “speedy clarification” in light of “the great importance of the institutions brought into being by Rabbi Homolka for Jewish life in Germany.”
The rabbinical association is among the groups that will cooperate with the Central Council investigation. According to the council’s announcement, the Leo Baeck Foundation, the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, Zacharias Frankel College and a scholarship program for gifted Jewish students known as ELES have also “expressly agreed” to cooperate.
They are among the many Jewish institutions with which Homolka has had a close involvement, holding both paid and unpaid positions. The newly appointed spokesperson for Geiger College told JTA in an email that they are “not allowed to comment on [salary questions] for reasons of data protection and labor law.”
Homolka’s hand can be seen virtually everywhere in the non-Orthodox Jewish landscape in Germany. And yet controversy also has accompanied Homolka, who said in his statement announcing his leave of absence, “All commitment also finds opponents who do not like what you achieve.” His conversion to Judaism as a teenager and the fact that he is married to a man made him stand out from the conventional rabbi.
But more significantly, the concentration of so many roles in one person has raised eyebrows over the years. Until now, few have dared to criticize Homolka openly: Directly or indirectly, he has had the ability to influence hiring, firing, scholarships and careers.
“At last … someone is taking this seriously,” said Berlin-based Rabbi Walter Rothschild, who has lived and worked in Germany for more than two decades. He likened the reckoning happening now within liberal Judaism in Germany to the #MeToo movement, the wave of revelations about public figures accused of sexual harassment and abuse that began in 2017.
“Every liberal rabbi in Europe is damaged by this,” said Rothschild. And “they also could have talked about it earlier. They were afraid — and now they are afraid of the consequences of being afraid.”
The student who made the original complaint said he has no regrets and isn’t worried about reprisals.
“I am not scared at all,” he told JTA. “I have the truth on my side.”
It was in 2019 that the student received a Facebook message from a Geiger employee, who he said offered to send pictures from his latest vacation with his husband.
“It was not framed as anything sexual,” the student recalled. “So [when] he said, ‘I am embarrassed about my size,’ I thought he meant his weight.” Instead, the video he received was sexually explicit.
“I said, ‘This has to stop right now, this is inappropriate,’” recalled the student. “He apologized and stopped contacting me.”
After the student reported the alleged incident to the police, Geiger College set up an internal investigative committee whose three members were on the staff. They offered the student mediation and counseling, but — said the student — no consequences for the alleged harasser.
Brenker, Geiger’s chancellor, identified the alleged harasser in a March 1 email to students and staff by name as Homolka’s husband. She said she was sharing the information because of a press inquiry to the school. In a later, public statement, she said the employee had been terminated from all positions.
David Gessner, an attorney at the Berlin law firm Behm Becker Gessner, which is representing the employee, told JTA that “sexual harassment… was never the subject of the criminal investigation, which, incidentally, has been discontinued.” He was responding to a JTA query about what both the Central Council and Brenker, in her internal email, had referred to as “sexualized harassment.”
The student told JTA that the college’s handling of his allegations infuriated him.
“My policy after this committee was, ‘This is not my secret, it is someone else’s… and I don’t keep secrets,’” the student told JTA. “I told everyone who would listen.”
That brought him into contact with Jonathan Schorsch, an American professor on the faculty of the School of Jewish Theology, who said he had heard allegations about harassment of various kinds for some time. “The more I heard, the more disturbed I got,” he told JTA.
A second student told JTA that the employee had invited him in a text message to share a hotel bed on a trip he had organized, and insisted the invitation wasn’t about sex. But, the student told JTA, “How could he send a message like that if he is in such a position?”
A third student told JTA that he had been afraid to tell Homolka he was thinking of transferring to the Leo Baeck College liberal seminary in London, to be close to his partner. “I was afraid of reprisals,” he wrote.
“When he found out that I was considering [this move], he [Homolka] found my Skype profile and started calling me in the middle of the night.” The student has since been interviewed by the investigative commission at the University of Potsdam.
Alarmed by what he was hearing from students, Schorsch raised concerns about the school’s handling of the student’s allegations during a faculty meeting in December 2021. Brenker subsequently provided more details about the internal investigation, he said — adding that what he learned only strengthened his resolve to speak out.
“All three people on that commission directly and completely owe their jobs to Walter Homolka,” said Schorsch. One of them, JTA has confirmed, had been terminated by the director of another organization for having sexual relations with female students.
“I was in a position to do something because I had tenure and everyone else was terrified,” said Schorsch, who compiled a report for the university’s equal opportunity commissioner and encouraged others to come forward.
Schorsch’s report triggered the first investigation, by the University of Potsdam. Now others are getting underway.
An attorney whose partner was a Frankel rabbinical student has collected allegations on her own, sharing reports from roughly 10 people with the state ministry responsible for overseeing education.
“People shared screenshots and also text messages and pictures,” the attorney, Nathalia Schomerus, told JTA.
One graduate of the Geiger seminary contacted by JTA said neither he nor one other student with whom he had spoken had heard of any sexual harassment or felt an atmosphere of fear at the college. In an email, the graduate, who is now working as a congregational rabbi in Europe, said he was “curious how the results of the investigation will be different from my experience.”
With the revelations still fresh, it remains to be seen how the scandal might affect liberal Judaism in Germany and beyond, among international liberal organizations that have linked with those in Germany. But the stakes are high, according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University who has been following recent scandals in U.S. Jewish establishments.
“News of betrayal after betrayal on the part of rogue Jewish leaders will make it hard for great Jewish leaders to win the support and respect they need in order to succeed,” Sarna said.
The current scandal must not be allowed to completely blot out Homolka’s accomplishments, said Armin Langer, who was expelled from Geiger College in 2016 after he criticized the Central Council of Jews in Germany, a funder of the school, over the group’s stance on Muslim refugees. Both he and the school said at the time that he had been expelled for failing to adhere to the school’s media rules, which require that students ask permission before speaking with the press.
“Homolka did an important job in making the Central Council recognize liberal communities, building up the reform rabbinical seminary and all his lobby work for liberal Judaism,” said Langer, who was ordained Sunday by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.
“I want to acknowledge that, but it will probably be time for him to retire and let a new generation of progressive rabbis or Jewish leaders take on the roles — the many different roles — he had in the past decades.”