Germany's Jewish University Looks to the Future as It Marks 30 Years

Heidelberg-based University of Judaism funded mostly by state Jewish council, most students not Jewish.

Germany's University for Jewish Studies, an academic center of Judaism unique in Europe, celebrates its 30th anniversary this week.

Set between the rivers and mountains of the picturesque German city of Heidelberg, the university has become a nucleus of Jewish learning for decades.

This week, the university will also celebrate the opening of a new building housing offices, classrooms, a library, a Bet Midrash and a cafeteria under one roof.

Most of the endowment for the university comes from the Central Council of Jews in Germany. As its former president Paul Spiegel stated in 2005: "It embodies more than any other Jewish institution established after the war the hope for a future in Germany."

The university is also notable for its close interaction with Heidelberg University, which openly supported the Nazis in the 1930s.

The fact that the university was founded outside of the big cities of Berlin and Frankfurt, home to the majority of German Jews, has given it what many consider a personal, cozy, warm, a safe and friendly environment for research and teaching, far from where politics are made.

The university has enrolled 150 students for the following semester, the majority of them non-Jewish. The school seeks greater enrollment from abroad and has launched a student and teacher exchange with Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, next to existing cooperations with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the University of Haifa.

With eight chairs, Heidelberg offers a variety of disciplines within Jewish Studies that is unique in Europe. Bible, Talmud and Rabbinical Literature, History of the Jewish People, Hebrew Philology, Jewish Philosophy, Hebrew and Jewish Literature, Jewish Art and Religious Pedagogy/Didactics are all taught at the university.

Many of the institution's Jewish students say they want to use their degree to contribute to Jewish Life in Germany, may it be as a teacher, community worker, Rabbi or more through careers in politics, science, media. Many have also said the school offers a Jewish religious education not widely available in most German schools and communities.

The university also brings students and educators together for the celebration of Jewish festivals and religious observance, including a once a semester Shabbat in the Heidelberg synagogue and candle lighting on Channuka and the decorating of a Sukka for Sukkot. The school also hosts public lectures from personalities such as Rabbi Israel Singer, Israeli author Reuven Kritz and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Julia Itin is a doctorate student at the university who is working towards being a high school teacher. She says her interest in teaching at school is based on more than just academic accolades.

"I wanted to participate actively in the renaissance of Jewish life in Germany. Therefore, I picked a place, that offers a sound standing academic education but also tradition bound teaching, that is "homemade" in Germany and adapted to the more than special situation of Jews here," Itin said.