[GERMANY] Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam: On the Right Track

(Potsdam, Germany) – The Abraham Geiger College in the north gate building of the New Palace will be a European center for Jewish theology at the University of Potsdam.

Abraham Geiger College front of the new building.

“Our synagogue will be finished in March or April,” says Walter Homolka, Rector of the Abraham-Geiger-Kolleg, the training center for Jewish rabbis and cantors at the University of Potsdam, stands in the courtyard of the so-called North Gate Building at the New Palace, with a smile. For while the new Potsdam synagogue has been the subject of debate and controversy for years, the University of Potsdam is creating facts. In the building once occupied by the court gardener of the New Palace, seminar rooms and offices are currently being built for the Abraham Geiger College and the conservative Zacharias Frankel College. In the Orangery, which was used as a gymnasium during the GDR era, rooms for the “Jewish Theology” of the University of Potsdam are being created. And in an annex to the north gate building, a small synagogue is being built, primarily for lecturers and students, with seating for almost 50 people.

Yesterday, Wednesday, Homolka led Minister of Culture Manja Schüle and the religious-political spokespersons of several state parliamentary groups over the construction site. Modern office space behind the historic walls was on display: the south side of the orangery, for example, of which basically no original parts were left, was completely glazed. The seminar rooms and offices were built into the building as a separate structure without altering the façade. “The great challenge of this ensemble is the protection of historical monuments,” says the rabbi. For architect Elisabeth Rüthnick, who is experienced in the renovation and conversion of historical buildings, however, the challenges were quite different: “I have never built a synagogue before,” says Rüthnick. For this reason, she intensively discussed with the Abraham Geiger College the liturgical requirements that such a prayer room must meet. “How must an ark be designed? What requirements must a Bima – i.e. the reading desk for the Torah scroll – meet? But even if the discussion went back and forth a few times – at this Potsdam synagogue all participants agreed in the end.

Minister of Culture Manja Schüle (3rd from left) with University President, Professor Oliver Günther (r.) Visiting the Abraham Geiger College and its Rector Walter Homolka (2nd from right) in the north gate building at Sanssouci Park. Photo: Benjamin Lassiwe

And art on the building is already part of the building ensemble: “This is not a thornbush” is the title of the work of artist Eva Leitolf, in which the abstract representation of a thornbush was printed in small, colored squares, pixelated on the glass surface of the former orangery. A connection to the Landtag castle, on whose façade the quote “Ceci n’est pas un Chateau” (“This is not a castle”) is evident, as is the reference to the biblical tale of the burning thorn bush.


Building security and security guards have been clarified

Overall, Homolka is very satisfied with the progress of the work: “We are making good progress, maybe two months behind schedule,” reports the rabbi. Old points of contention, such as the question of building security and security guards, have been resolved. “Since the attack in Halle, this is no longer an issue,” said Homolka. While it had previously been discussed whether attacks on Jewish institutions were also threatening in smaller towns, there was no longer any controversy about this: the somewhat remote building will be equipped with numerous protective devices, but no details are to be published. In addition, security personnel will also be on the premises. The conversion of the two listed buildings will cost a total of around 12 million euros. “A place of European Jewish scholarship is being created here,” says Homolka. “A beacon project with international appeal.”

Jewish theology proves beyond capacity

The University of Potsdam is already known worldwide for its commitment to Jewish theology – a fact that is noticeable even in the student numbers: of the 30 rabbis and cantors trained at the two colleges, a good third come from abroad. With 160 students, the subject of Jewish theology has even exceeded the capacity limit. Homolka expressly emphasizes the cooperation with the Potsdam Ministry of Science and Culture. “Minister Schüle has made this project her own,” says Homolka. “From our point of view, no wishes remain open here. Only one single, bold dream of the rabbi could not be fulfilled. “I would have liked to have covered the inner courtyard and used it as a library,” says Homolka. But the monument protection authorities had something against it.


To read original article in German, click here.