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Prominent Rabbi Abused His Power But Can Still Teach, German Academic Investigation Finds

(JTA) — An influential German rabbi could return to teaching at the University of Potsdam and the seminary he founded, nearly six months after stepping back amid a scandal involving allegations of sexual harassment and abuse of power.

But the school should be restructured to reduce the influence of one person – in this case, Rabbi Walter Homolka – according to the university’s investigative report released Wednesday.

The university will also continue to investigate allegations of academic misconduct, such as Homolka’s failure to write all papers, books or papers attributed to him, according to the report.

Homolka – a major force behind the establishment of Reform Jewish institutions in post-unification Germany – suspended his work at the University of Potsdam and all Jewish organizations in May after the scandal erupted in the public eye . The university is home to the School of Jewish Theology and Abraham Geiger College, a reform rabbinical school, both founded by Homolka, as well as the seminary of the conservative movement, Zacharias Frankel College.

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The long-awaited report concluded that Homolka likely abused power, including favoring students and faculty who had shown loyalty to him. But the university found no legally actionable misconduct, so Homolka was asked to return to teaching Jewish theology at the university — for now.

View of the European Center for Jewish Learning in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam. (Walter Homolka)

A major administrative restructuring is planned for the three Jewish institutions under the aegis of the university to ensure that power over finances, hiring and firing, admission and scholarships for students is not concentrated between the hands of one person. Homolka is still listed as the general director of both rabbinical schools.

A separate investigation, commissioned by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is still ongoing. The council’s executive director says the investigation goes far beyond whether Homolka committed criminal acts.

Homolka calls the whole scandal an attempted “character assassination.”

In his first interview with German media since announcing he was taking leave last May, Homolka told the Die Zeit newspaper this week that he was concerned “to vehemently oppose the false accusations of abuse of power and sexual harassment – and also to have them banned.He added: “I’m not a cover-up artist or a stalker.”

Homolka, 58, was embroiled in controversy after accusations surfaced in May that he tried to cover up allegations that her husband – also her employee – sent obscene messages and pictures to students. To these accusations, reported in the newspaper Die Welt, are added others related to the influence of Homolka on several Jewish institutions associated with Reform or Progressive Judaism.

The university and the Central Council of Jews in Germany have launched investigations. The latter, led by a Cologne-based law firm that has also investigated allegations of abuse within the German Catholic Church, is expected to conclude in early 2023.

The university’s investigation was conducted by a five-member team led by equal opportunities officer Christina Wolff. The team interviewed 20 people, including current and former students and staff.

They found that “charges of abuse of power against Rabbi Prof. Dr. Walter Homolka on the basis of his accumulation of non-transparent offices and structures of studies and working relationships at the School of Jewish Theology have been partially confirmed,” according to their report.

While the panel did not examine allegations of sexual harassment against Homolka’s husband, who was fired prior to the launch of the investigation, it did examine allegations that Homolka condoned “sexually harassing behavior by from his life partner…which has not been confirmed,” the report said. .

Rabbi Walter Homolka, rector of the Abraham Geiger College, in the synagogue of the liberal Jewish community in Hannover, Germany, in December 2016. (Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The interviews confirmed that an abuse of power had taken place, the panel concluded. Homolka has “explicitly required” that students and employees show “loyalty to [his] interests (wishes and goals),” reads part of their report.

“On several occasions, the people concerned were arrested, threatened individually or in groups with expulsion or closure of the school. On several occasions, they were also contacted and harassed privately in their spare time,” the report continued. “Support for academic projects and the continuation or extension of employment contracts have also been conditioned on loyal behavior.”

Employees were often hired on short-term contracts, which increased their dependency, the report concludes. “Those who did not want to comply with the requirements were put under pressure.” Requests included being available at all times, including evenings, weekends and days off, and providing “private services to superiors (such as preparing their tax returns),” the report said. .

The panel also heard that “employees were asked to vote for Professor Homolka” to be part of a watchdog body of academic experts.

In addition, the panel specifically criticized a line from the seminar’s “Guidelines for Respectful and Trusting Cooperation”, dated February 20, 2020 and signed by Homolka, which – under the category of “Prevention” – prohibits participants from “disclosing to the ‘outside’ any “issues and topics that emerge from courses or other contexts.”

This clause “is totally inadmissible at a state university dedicated to the spirit of the Enlightenment,” the panel commented.

In short, “the fear of contradicting Professor Homolka or of arousing his displeasure in some other way has been presented so often and systematically that it does not appear as an individual idiosyncrasy in each case. It is not implausible to assume it as factual.

The Central Council’s investigation is not just looking at whether laws have been broken, executive director Daniel Botmann told JTA.

“Criminal law is the sharpest sword, the ultima ratio. But there are things below that threshold,” he said. “To focus only on criminally punishable acts would be to ignore incidents that could also be relevant.”

“As the largest funder of the Abraham Geiger College, but also as a representative organization of the Jewish community in Germany, we are committed to doing everything possible to clarify the accusations and possibly other unknown incidents” , Botmann said.

So far, all Botmann knows about the Gercke Wollschläger law firm’s investigation is that “they interviewed 79 people.” Their names and the content of their testimony are known only to the firm.

While the investigation is ongoing, the Central Council is already convinced that the structure of the rabbinical curriculum “needs to be reworked in such a way that major decisions do not rest with one person,” Botmann said.

But “the first step [is] creating a safe space for those affected so that if something happens, they can address it; people shouldn’t be afraid to speak up,” said Botmann, who met with students from both seminaries last summer. The board plans to involve students in shaping “the future of rabbinical education.”

Abraham Geiger College’s acting principal, Gabriele Thöne, said Wednesday that the college is already planning structural changes “that effectively prevent the concentration of power and any resulting abuse of power.”

Homolka told Die Zeit he would cooperate with the Central Council’s investigation, although he sees it as “an attack by conservative circles on liberal Judaism”.

Botmann saw it differently: “If there are any issues, it has to do with leadership and not with a secular denomination in Judaism,” he told JTA. “And that affects all of us as Jews, regardless of our denomination.”


The post Prominent Rabbi Abused His Power But Can Still Teach, German Academic Survey Concludes, appeared first on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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