Prominent rabbi abused power but can still teach - German university

The University of Potsdam's investigation examined allegations that Rabbi Walter Homolka had tolerated “sexually harassing behavior by his life partner…  which were not confirmed.”

Rabbi Walter Homolka (photo credit: Ellenson1/Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Walter Homolka
(photo credit: Ellenson1/Wikimedia Commons)

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

But the school should be restructured to reduce the influence of any one person — in this case, Rabbi Walter Homolka — according to the report of an investigation by the university released Wednesday.

The university will also continue to investigate allegations of academic misconduct, such as that Homolka did not write all of the papers, books or articles attributed to him, the report said.

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 first broke into public view. The university is the home of the School of Jewish Theology and the Abraham Geiger College, a Reform rabbinical school, both of which Homolka founded, as well as the Conservative movement’s seminary, Zacharias Frankel College.

The conclusions of the investigation

The long-awaited report concluded that Homolka likely did commit abuse of power, including by favoring students and faculty who showed loyalty to him. But the university found no legally actionable misbehavior, so Homolka has been invited to resume his duties as professor of Jewish theology at the university — for now.

 Attorney Gabriele Thöne, interim director of the Abraham Geiger College and former state secretary, and attorney Micha Guttmann, photographed during a press conference about allegations of sexual harassment against the director of the college, in Potsdam, Germany, June 1, 2022. (credit: Soeren Stache/picture alliance via Getty Images) Attorney Gabriele Thöne, interim director of the Abraham Geiger College and former state secretary, and attorney Micha Guttmann, photographed during a press conference about allegations of sexual harassment against the director of the college, in Potsdam, Germany, June 1, 2022. (credit: Soeren Stache/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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

A separate investigation, commissioned by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, is still underway. The council’s executive director says the inquiry is looking well beyond whether Homolka committed any criminal acts.

“I am not a cover-up artist or a harasser.”

Rabbi Walter Homolka

Homolka is calling the entire scandal an attempt at “character assassination.”

In his first interview with German media since he announced he was taking a leave of absence last May, Homolka told Die Zeit newspaper this week that he has been preoccupied “with vehemently countering untrue accusations of abuse of power and sexualized harassment — and also with having them banned.” He added: “I am not a cover-up artist or a harasser.”

Homolka, 58, became embroiled in controversy after accusations surfaced in May that he had tried to cover up allegations that his husband — also his employee — had sent lewd messages and images to students. To these accusations, reported in the Die Welt newspaper, were added others related to Homolka’s influence over several Jewish institutions associated with Reform or progressive Judaism.

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

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

They found that “accusations of abuse of power against Rabbi Prof. Dr. Walter Homolka based on his accumulation of offices and non-transparent structures of study and work relationships in the School of Jewish Theology have been partially confirmed,” according to their report.

While the panel did not examine accusations of sexual harassment against Homolka’s husband, who had been fired before the investigation was launched, it did examine allegations that Homolka had tolerated “sexually harassing behavior by his life partner…  which were not confirmed,” the report states.

Interviews did confirm that abuse of power had taken place, the panel concluded. Homolka “explicitly demanded” that students and employees show “loyalty to [his] interests (wishes and goals),” their report reads in part.

“On several occasions, those affected were shouted at, threatened as individuals or in groups with expulsion or closure of the school. On several occasions, they were also contacted and harassed privately during their free time,” the report continues. “Support for academic projects and the continuation or extension of employment contracts were also made dependent on loyal behavior.”

Employees often were hired on short-term contracts, which increased their dependency, the report concluded. “Those who did not want to comply with demands were put under pressure.” Demands included being available at all times, including evenings, weekends and days off, and providing “private services for superiors (e.g. to prepare their tax returns),” the report said.

The panel also learned that “employees were urged to vote for Prof. Homolka” to be on a university expert oversight body.

Furthermore, the panel expressly criticized a line in the seminary’s “Guideline for Respectful and Trustful Cooperation,” dated Feb. 20, 2020 and signed by Homolka, which — under the category “Prevention” — bars participants from “disclosing to the outside“ any “matters and topics that come to light from courses or other contexts.”

This clause “is completely inadmissible in a state university dedicated to the spirit of enlightenment,” the panel commented.

In short, “the fear of contradicting Prof. Homolka or otherwise arousing his displeasure was presented so often and consistently that it does not appear as an individual idiosyncrasy in each case. It is not implausible to assume it as factual.”

The investigation initiated by the Central Council also is looking not only at whether laws were broken, executive director Daniel Botmann, told JTA.

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

“As the biggest grant provider of the Abraham Geiger College, but also as the representative organization of Jewry in Germany, we were committed to doing everything possible to clarify the accusations and possibly unknown further incidents,” Botmann said.

So far, all Botmann knows about the inquiry by the law firm Gercke Wollschläger is that “they have interviewed 79 individuals.” Their names, and the content of their testimony, are known only to the firm.

While the investigation is ongoing, the Central Council already is convinced that the structure of the rabbinical program “has to be reworked in such a way that major decisions are not depending on one single person,” Botmann said.

But “the first step [is] to create a safe space for persons affected so that if something ever happens, they can address it; people should have no fear of speaking out,” said Botmann, who met with students from both seminaries last summer. The council plans to involve students in designing “the future of the rabbinical training.”

Abraham Geiger College’s interim director, 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 that he would cooperate with the Central Council’s investigation, though he considered it “an attack by conservative circles on liberal Judaism.”

Botmann saw things differently: “If there are problems then it has to do with the leadership and not with a sees denomination in Judaism,” he told JTA. “And it impacts all of us as Jews, whatever our denomination.”