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The Berlin Rabbinical Seminary - The First 25 Years

(A chronicle of the Lecturers Council from the year 1898)

The founding of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary is closely tied to the appointment of Dr. Esriel Hildesheimer in Berlin as the head of the newly founded orthodox Congregation. He accepted the position of Rabbi of this Congregation under the condition that he could continue teaching in Berlin with even more enthusiasm and resources. With characteristic energy, he immediately began giving lectures in October the same year. Quite a number of top pupils from his former educational establishment followed the venerated teacher from Eisenstadt to Berlin, in order to continue their education under his guidance. At the same time, a great many pupils thirsty for knowledge flocked to him from all over Germany, drawn by his reputation as a man of great learning with an unflagging enthusiasm for teaching. They were captivated by his delightful benevolence, which catered to all of his pupils' needs, and by his exemplary way of living. All his work was done out of devotion to noble services, such as the preservation and maintenance of traditional Judaism.

Rabbinate and University

The Sponsors

They were unforgettably pleasant years of idealistic rivalry in the study of the sources of our religion; people from all directions of the compass were brought together, all striving for the same thing, and all united by their reverence of their teacher. The pupils back then were also students at the Berlin University, where they were officially enrolled and doing their academic studies. These courses of study did not however follow any plan, and were not strictly related to the main focus of rabbinical studies. They therefore lacked the structure and consolidation which should form the basis of any vocation-orientated course. Alongside this shortcoming, which was widely felt by the students, lay another serious problem related to the first: for many of the disciplines of Jewish Studies for which instruction was crucial, such as Bible exegesis, Jewish history and literature, philosophy of religion, and homiletics, competent tutelage was lacking.

These students put forward to the teachers the urgent demand for an institute which would incorporate these essential academic areas in its programme and offer the students a more holistic course of study. Dr. Hildesheimer, who had himself long since realised this need, took up this idea, which had been an objective of his for years, with great zeal. His quest was just as quickly met with understanding and support from a circle of intellectuals, who were versed in the service of our denomination and were bound together by a clear overview of the needs of the time and a deep fondness of the unadulterated preservation and invigoration of traditional Judaism.

With much eagerness, the following people put their years of experience and willingness to help at the service of this initiative: Oberrath J. Altmann (from Karlsruhe), Rabbi Dr. Auerbach (from Halberstadt), rural Rabbi Dr. Cohn (from Schwerin and later Berlin), the banker A. H. Heymann (from Berlin), Gustav Hirsch (from Berlin), Sally Lewison (from Hamburg) and Emanuel Schwarzschild (from Frankfurt am Main). This initiative was portrayed from its early stages to its completion as follows in this report of the same institute, founded in 1873:
»At Ijar in 5632, (Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer) seized the initiative and turned first of all to ten wonderful people in different parts of Germany and explained to them how one cannot dismiss the specific need in Berlin, the metropolis and the practically essential university city for Jewish students, to establish a fertile ground for Jewish knowledge according to our traditions. And at the same time as he informed them about the main points regarding the setting up of such an institute, he pleaded for their expert assistance and support. All of these men agreed passionately on the realisation of this plan, namely that an institute would be established in Berlin which would guarantee that potential rabbis would be equipped, based on orthodox Judaism, with a thorough and holistic knowledge of biblical and Talmudic literature and the rituals thereof.

Furthermore, it should teach the students and allow them to put their knowledge into practice in those Jewish academic disciplines that are demanded by today's education standards, and which aspires to deliver a religious education to the students. The wide scope of the project required the willingness of men to take control of the possibilities of its realisation.

The undersigned, faithfully looking to G'd for support, convened in a Central Committee, which had now become necessary. Alongside this, Local Committees were formed shortly afterwards in five cities, which significantly promoted the propaganda in each place and contributed largely to the advancement of the project. Their faith did not deceive them. An appeal from the Central Committee for contributions to help raise the required funds and annual fees was met immediately with fantastic results: the first appeal and the report from May 1, 1873 could already verify (excluding not insignificant donations of effects and books to the library) around 20,830 Thalers for the funds and around 5,500 Thalers toward the annual fees. The report from October 1 showed an increase in the latter to around 6,100 Thalers.

Such an efficient, selfless collaboration of distinguished people, especially the Germans but above all the non-German Jewry, must have been encouraging for the entrepreneurs to foster the implementation of the project.

In careful consultation (partly written, partly verbal), the charter of the institute was stipulated, in which the teaching subject-matter of the seminars was also specified. The lecturers were also chosen at this time in order to give them ample time and opportunity to prepare themselves for each subject before the seminars began. A suitable site (12a Gipsstrasse) was purchased at a very reasonable price, which secured the institute a permanent location. In order to meet legal requirements, the necessary measures were taken by a lawyer at the respective authorities; on November 29, 1873, the institute was bestowed with the happiest success by the highest order, which awarded the Seminary with the rights of an academic corporation
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Official Opening in October 1873

The Disciplines

After a preparation period of barely two years, the difficult work, both physical and organisational, came to such a happy conclusion that the institute was ready to be opened. This took place on October 22, 1873 (Marcheschwan 1, 5633) with an opening ceremony, to which both the Ministry of Education and the Provincial Schools Council sent distinguished representatives. The Minister of Education Dr. Falk excused his absence in a warmly worded letter, which ended with the words: »My wish, that this institute will prosper, is not less avid because of this«.

At the opening of the Seminary, the Teachers Council appointed two lecturers alongside the principal, Dr. Esriel Hildesheimer - Dr. David Zwi Hoffman (for Talmud, ritual-codices, and Pentateuch exegesis) and Dr. Abraham Berliner (for post-Talmudic history, history of literature, and ancillary science). The enlargement of the institute, which was expected from the outset, occurred in 1874, with the addition of Dr. Jakob Barth as lecturer of the Hebrew language, exegesis of the biblical books (with the exception of Pentateuch), and philosophy of religion. The History faculty, which until then had been taken care of by the principal, was taken over by Dr. Hirsch Hildesheimer in 1882, after the Gymnasium preparatory school he had presided over was closed down for both internal and external reasons. Through the appointment of Dr. Hirsch Hildesheimer it became possible to expand the curriculum to include lectures on Josephus, Philo and the Alexandrians, as well as the geography of Palestine. After moving from Schwerin to Berlin, Rabbi Dr. Salomon Cohn was benevolent enough to put his valuable time and energy at the service of our institute in a teaching capacity, by giving lectures on theoretical and practical homiletics up until the relocation of his residence to Breslau in 1894.

The extraordinary increase in the number of students, along with factors of an internal nature, made it necessary in 1895 to appoint another faculty member for the Talmudic lectures in the junior classes. Fortunately, several former students of the Seminary could be considered for this position. The board of trustees decided on Dr. Joseph Wohlgemuth, who alongside the Talmudic division in Department B also took over Theoretical Homiletics and Philosophy of Religion. Due to this lessening of the teaching load, Dr. Hoffman was now able to devote his undivided energy to the Talmudic-Halakhic teaching in the senior classes.

The terms of admission, which were already agreed upon at the founding of the Seminary and which were supposed to guarantee a consistent level of education for the students, were until now unwaveringly implemented and abided by. Accordingly, only those students were and are admitted who along with leading a religious lifestyle (which is naturally presumed), can also demonstrate a) the ability to understand on their own a Talmudic text of medium difficulty together with Raschi and Tosaphot, and b) at least the maturity of a senior pupil of a Gymnasium in secular lessons. Only in certain exceptional cases, with consideration of difficulties, which, especially outside of Germany, stood in the way of the acquirement of a Gymnasium education, were candidates allowed to be admitted as special students, but only if the Talmudic requirements were met.

It is our pleasure to finally be able to announce to the public that since we began to teach, the restless aspiration, the moral and religious seriousness, and the calibre of the students has made the efforts of the teachers much easier. With very few exceptions, all of those who have received the authorisation to become a rabbi from the rabbinical seminary act according to the rules of the institution in their engagement in teaching and vocation. They justify the belief which we have bestowed on them upon their graduation. With the graceful testimonies of the Almighty, which have always accompanied the development of the Rabbinical Seminary, we perceive and honour this crowning of our efforts as His most glorious gift. Once more, the thrilling truth has become apparent, that Orthodox Judaism manages to exercise its religiously invigorating powers within today's educational context no less than it did in the past! The years of serious, difficult work lie behind us. It is not up to us to draw the conclusion of the 25 years of the institution's effectiveness, or to judge its achievements and success. However, we will go so far as to say that our efforts have paid off.

Although it was established under difficult circumstances and confronted by criticism and prejudice from all sides, the Rabbinical Seminary nevertheless evolved into the most comprehensive and visited institute of its kind. In all corners of Germany and elsewhere, there is now a significant community of well-educated, deeply religious men who are passionate about their work and who are working in the spirit of the institute where they received their vocational training. With great satisfaction, we have become aware from year to year of a growing number of communities who appoint students of the seminary to leading religious positions, or who have entrusted them with the religious instruction of their children. This evidence of honorific trust of the Rabbinical Seminary will be received by its friends and sponsors as well as us as a pleasing testimony of the dissemination and deeper impregnation of the devotedness and elation for the divine law, of its undiminished preservation and usage. May our effort during this just begun quarter century also be crowned by success in educating religious leaders who are enthusiastic for the eternal truths of our religion. May they teach and spread them devotedly and at the same time may they see their life's project as working on everything that is beautiful and noble for the grace of the entirety, whilst keeping in mind a citizen's duties!

The Lecturing Staff

Taken from: »The Berlin Rabbinical Seminary: Report of the first 25 Years of its Existence (1873-1898)«