In December 2015, when Angela Merkel, then the chancellor of Germany, stood on a stage at Berlin’s Jewish Museum to accept the Abraham Geiger Prize “for promoting pluralism,” she spoke about the “great gift … that there is once again a diverse and rich Jewish life in Germany.” It was a nice line, one fully endorsed by the two rabbis who flanked her onstage.

One was Rabbi Walter Jacob, an American who had fled Nazi Germany in 1939, as a child. The other was Rabbi Dr. Walter Homolka, a German convert to Judaism who was the rector of Abraham Geiger College, the first liberal Jewish seminary to open in Germany since the Nazis shuttered Berlin’s Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1942.

In 2015, Homolka owned, ran, or led nearly every liberal Jewish organization of importance in Germany. Merkel donated the Abraham Geiger Prize’s $10,000 check to the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk (E.L.E.S.), an organization Homolka has chaired since its founding, to grant scholarships to gifted Jewish students.

Homolka was also the chairman of the Leo Baeck Foundation, which was dedicated to promoting Jewish education and theology, and had some of the highest-ranking politicians in the country on its board, including Annalena Baerbock, now Germany’s foreign minister, and Armin Laschet, Merkel’s party’s nominee for chancellor when she stepped down in 2021.

From left, Peter Schäfer, the director of the Jewish Museum; Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Angela Merkel, then the chancellor of Germany; Rabbi Walter Homolka; and Rabbi Walter Jacob, in 2015.

Large in personality and waistline, Rabbi Homolka, 58, dresses like a prosperous man of business—more Charles Dickens than Tevye. Born into a mixed Catholic and Protestant family 19 years after the end of World War II, Homolka converted to Judaism as a teenager in the early 1980s, after a childhood spent in a small Bavarian town with no Jewish population. Since he became a rabbi, in 1997, he’s amassed incredible powers in a country where the word “Jew” is a ticket to political prominence.

In fawning profiles, German journalists held up Homolka as the shining proof that liberal Judaism—the German equivalent of the Reform movement in the United States and Britain—had survived the Holocaust. He was the Wunderrabbiner, the rabbi who performs miracles, and he was particularly gifted when it came to melting away the guilt of deep-pocketed German politicians. He has proclaimed that Germany is “not a country where you have to think much” about anti-Semitism and that “the Shoah is no longer central for my generation.”

But even as many European nations bestowed honors on Homolka, established members of Germany’s Jewish community have questioned Homolka’s devotion to Judaism.

While colleagues and students have claimed he stumbles through even the most basic Jewish prayers, it took a sexting scandal for people to start asking questions about how Homolka managed his network of publicly financed institutions, as well as more fundamental ones about his identity, his scholarship, his motivations to convert, and, perhaps most importantly, what his long period of success reveals about Germany’s relationship to Judaism eight decades after the Holocaust. (When asked about his fluency in Hebrew, Homolka pointed to the Hebrew prayer books and translations he has edited.)

“The problem again and again in Germany is that as a prominent Jew, you are not attacked in politics,” says Michael Fürst, the chairman of the Jewish community of Lower Saxony, and the child of German Holocaust survivors. “The response is always, ‘We don’t want to interfere with the Jews. After all, we can only make mistakes.’”

The Jew-ish Rabbi

Homolka’s downfall started in December 2019, when cantorial student Itamar Cohen, who had moved from Israel to Germany to study at Abraham Geiger College, opened a Facebook message and found a video of an erect penis being stroked. Horrified, he quickly closed the window. He knew the course of his education had just changed: Homolka’s longtime partner, who was a lecturer at, and spokesperson for, Abraham Geiger College, had sent the pornographic message.

“I was in a state of terror. And not because of the penis—I’ve seen penises before,” says Cohen, who was in his third year of his program when he received the video. “It’s the context—it’s who Homolka is, and the kind of effect that he could have on my career and on my life.”

For several months, Cohen was paralyzed and terrified. It was only after he saw Homolka’s partner on campus that he reported the incident to the police and Abraham Geiger, which was run as a private institute out of the University of Potsdam. But the three people on the school’s commission assigned to handle it were all direct employees of Homolka’s—including the rabbi overseeing the commission who had been fired from his last job, at E.L.E.S., for having sex with female students, but who was quickly hired by Homolka at Abraham Geiger.

After recusing himself from the commission, Homolka later claimed he wasn’t aware that his partner had sent “a photo that could be considered pornographic” until December 2020.

Similar charges emerged about Homolka’s partner sending pornographic material and behaving inappropriately with students, but nothing came of the complaints until February 2022, when the university received a press query about the incident. Three months later, Alan Posener published a bombshell story in Die Welt, the German daily newspaper, about the unsolicited pornographic video sent to Cohen.

Since he became a rabbi, in 1997, Walter Homolka has amassed incredible powers in a country where the word “Jew” is a ticket to political prominence.

Homolka’s partner claims that he accidentally sent the video, apologized, and told Posener he was accused of “distribution of pornography, not sexual harassment.” He lost his job as a lecturer at the college, but he stayed on the payroll as a spokesperson.

Before Posener’s article was published, Jonathan Schorsch, an American tenured professor at the School of Jewish Theology—another constituent of Homolka’s vast empire of Jewish institutions in Germany—sent a whistleblower letter to the University of Potsdam.

Schorsch’s letter detailed numerous allegations of misconduct by Homolka: bullying, harassment, a scam professorship handed out to a donor named Bettina Schwarz, unconventional hiring practices, academic fraud, and even questions surrounding Homolka’s claims to the rabbinate.

(In an e-mail to AIR MAIL, Homolka denied these allegations, and stated that “appointing someone to a professorship is a lengthy and transparent process in Germany” and that while the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the country’s official Jewish lobbying organization, is investigating the matter, a university commission appointed in the spring of 2022 had ​​cleared him of all disciplinary or criminal offenses and reinstated him as a university professor as of October of that year.)

The University of Potsdam had no direct authority over Homolka’s seminaries, which were run more like private businesses than taxpayer-funded institutions. Homolka was influential in deciding who got teaching positions and professorships and plum appointments at his various institutions. (“It must be noted,” Homolka wrote in his e-mail to AIR MAIL, “that the allegations of alleged abuse of power by my person are not established (in the sense of proven) facts, but rather suspicious facts which the lawyers claim to have determined on the basis of the sources of knowledge available to them.”)

Homolka has said that “the Shoah is no longer central for my generation.”

For decades, Homolka seemed too big to fail. “If you wanted to do anything in liberal Judaism here you had to submit to Walter Homolka 100 percent,” says Walter Rothschild, a British rabbi who has lived in Germany since 1998. “If you didn’t, you were blocked, and you’d know that the courts would do nothing to help. Even a classic case of breach of contract or misuse of taxpayer money would be dismissed as an innerjüdische Angelegenheit,” an intra-Jewish matter. “The authorities would refuse to get involved.”

Many Jews in Germany have long been skeptical of Homolka’s background and were determined to call attention to his seemingly opportunistic relationship to Judaism. Several Jewish leaders have pointed to a sermon Homolka delivered in May 1993, when he stood behind the pulpit of a Munich church to celebrate his newly earned doctorate in Christian dogmatics.

Homolka began this address with an invocation of “Our Father and His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who rules together in unity with the Holy Ghost.” They were boilerplate lines for Christians but rather unusual for a man who, within a few short years, would be a rising star in Germany’s burgeoning liberal Jewish scene.

“If you wanted to do anything in liberal Judaism here you had to submit to Walter Homolka 100 percent.”

Homolka’s remarkable transformation has to do with the changes Germany itself was undergoing in the decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the first years after re-unification, Germany—which, after World War II, had a tiny and stagnant Jewish population of just under 30,000—granted 200,000 Soviet Jews “contingent refugee” status.

Most of these new arrivals proved far more Russian than Jewish, but in a country where the state directly funds religions, none so generously as Judaism, a spike in the number of registered Jews meant a corresponding increase in government support.

Homolka—who had worked as a banker in Munich and as chief of staff to the head of Bertelsmann, the huge publishing firm—seemed to grasp the institution-building potential of this moment. While working full-time at Bertelsmann, Homolka began volunteering at Beth Shalom, a fledgling liberal synagogue.

Without completing the coursework to become a rabbi, Homolka drew on personal connections he’d made in Munich to arrange a private ordination—an extremely rare and frowned-upon procedure in Reform Judaism, which prefers the institutional, academic model of the seminary. (“The provenance of my ordination has been subject to a hot public debate in 1997 and 1998 since it was attempted by the German ‘Zentralrat’ [the Central Council of Jews in Germany] to put its validity in question,” Homolka wrote in his e-mail to AIR MAIL. Given “a number of public statements or letters to the editor of international bodies of progressive Judaism who have unanimously spoken out in my favour,” he wrote, “one can hardly say that the circumstances of my ordination have not—from the very beginning—been crystal clear.”)

In June 1997, the same rabbi who later stood onstage with him and Merkel ordained Homolka in Pittsburgh. The Central Conference of American Rabbis refused to recognize Homolka’s rabbinic credentials.

Six months later, after Homolka became a state rabbi of Lower Saxony and co-founded the Union of Progressive Jews, the German Rabbinical Conference issued a unanimous statement condemning him as “neither a rabbi nor a Jew.” Around the same time, Michael Fürst began collecting documents and circulating letters in the hopes of proving that Homolka was a “hypocrite and charlatan of the first order” who served not Judaism but, instead, his own ambition, as Fürst wrote in a 1999 letter to Johannes Rau, Germany’s president at the time.

Homolka’s critics wisely didn’t focus on his status as a convert. In postwar Germany, converts have played an outsize, controversial role in remaking the country’s ravaged Jewish population. Although the overall number of German converts is relatively small, many believe that, in recent years, far too many have risen to leadership positions in the Jewish community.

Without completing the coursework to become a rabbi, Homolka drew on personal connections he’d made in Munich to arrange a private ordination—an extremely rare and frowned-upon procedure in Reform Judaism.

Anyone who got hung up on a Jew’s origins, Homolka said in a 2015 interview with Die Presse, was simply “continuing Hitler’s race mania.” Similarly, he dismissed criticisms of his background as attacks on liberal Judaism by the threatened Orthodox establishment. “We are creating many ways to be Jewish. If you want to be Jewish, we will find a way for you to be Jewish,” Homolka said in a 2016 interview with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. (In his e-mail to AIR MAIL, he suggested that “all attempts to disqualify me—in the past or the present—have a root in the attempt to develop and build a diverse Jewish community in Germany.”)

It’s a bizarre position to take, especially since many Germans today have never met a Jew, and the average German knows very little about Jews beyond the fact that a long, long time ago, right-wing fanatics, who definitely weren’t their ancestors, killed six million of them. At the same time, Germans have had an enduring—if often abstract—fascination with the religion.

“Homolka’s pitch was ‘I can give you this new Jew, who is liberal and not too different, who unlike all these Ludmillas and Tatianas and Mikhaels speaks great German,’” says a rabbinic student who eventually left Abraham Geiger College after being harassed by Homolka’s partner for several years. “He also doesn’t come with the trauma or any sense of danger about Germany, or any of the reservations that the Jews who lived in Germany before 1990 had.”

“His was a Judaism that didn’t hurt the German Protestant prejudices,” says Christoph Schulte of the University of Potsdam’s Jewish Studies Department, who has written pieces critical of Homolka. “He was, in rabbinical costume, the non-Jew’s convenient projection of those assimilated, bourgeois liberal German Jews we lost in the Shoah. A Biergarten Jew.”

Homolka’s elevation as a rabbi seemed to have an immediate impact on his non-religious career prospects. Around the time of his ordination, he was promoted to the executive board at Bertelsmann, though he soon left to become the first managing director of Greenpeace in Germany, then the environmental-justice organization’s largest branch. (He was fired by Greenpeace after just 10 months for “unbridgeable differences over presentation and leadership,” as the organization explained in a press release.)

As Homolka put it to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, “the experience that I had in the boardroom, the boldness to change, created competition on the German Jewish market.” And the rewards, once he became what Germans call a Berufsjude—a person who makes a career out of Judaism—came quickly.

A little over a year after the Greenpeace kerfuffle, Homolka helped found Abraham Geiger College, which from the beginning received hundreds of thousands of euros every year from the state. (In 2003, Geiger was restructured as a private L.L.C., with just one owner, Homolka.)

Shortly after Abraham Geiger College opened, Homolka was appointed head of the cultural foundation of Deutsche Bank. This position, too, was short-lived. (It’s unclear what led to his leaving.)

Homolka at the opening of the University of Potsdam’s European Center for Jewish Scholarship, with university president Oliver Günther and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the president of Germany, in 2021.

But by this stage, he was busy building his Jewish empire in Potsdam. In 2003, Homolka was one of the key players in forcing the Central Council of Jews in Germany to share state funding proportionally between Orthodox and liberal Jews. The Central Council agreed in the hopes of preventing an unbridgeable schism within an already embattled German-Jewish community.

By the time the Welt piece came out, Homolka could choose who got ordained and who got promoted. “He would never have had this career as a Protestant or Catholic,” says Schulte, who is not Jewish.

Court of Last Resort

Homolka’s fall from grace, while more gradual than many predicted, has still been inexorable. A year after the bombshell article, he has lost most of his powers, though never without a fight. He has had to step down from leadership positions at—and surrender ownership of—his own institutions, and he’s been voted out of organizations he helped found.

In February, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung found that 60 pages of his dissertation had been plagiarized. The University of Potsdam is investigating the charges, though for now he remains on their payroll. (In his e-mail to AIR MAIL, Homolka stated, “I can say with confidence that I have not plagiarized in my Master’s thesis.”)

The Central Council, from which all German-government money to Jewish organizations flows, has announced that it has refused to work with him going forward. Last month, it supported the founding of a new liberal-Jewish association, the Jewish-Liberal Egalitarian Union, to mark an official split with the Homolka-affiliated Union of Progressive Jews.

These days, Homolka seems to spend his time suing his enemies. He has taken Die Welt to court to demand various retractions, including over the claim that the penis in the video sent to Cohen belonged to his partner. (They are still together.) Die Welt had to modify the description of the male organ from “his” penis to “a” penis. Similarly, the paper had to change the term “sexual harassment” in the original article to “sexualized harassment,” since the definition of the former is very narrow in Germany.

In November, Homolka’s lawyers demanded another publication retract an article that accused him of playing a role in disseminating a rumor that his mother was a Jew who had been baptized, despite written evidence that he had done just that.

Homolka’s lawyers have even taken the Central Council to court for publishing the partial results of an investigation they’d commissioned regarding misconduct at Homolka’s institutions. The full report was supposed to come out this winter, but Homolka’s lawsuits have succeeded in delaying its publication indefinitely.

Now Homolka is suing Die Welt for roughly $55,000 in damages. While the Wunderrabbiner usually shows up to court wearing his woven yarmulke, he wasn’t at Berlin’s district court on May 4, when the case was heard by a panel of judges. It seems like Homolka’s legal luck might soon run out. Even though the judges won’t make their decision for several weeks, they’ve seemed skeptical of the distinction between “sexual” and “sexualized” harassment and seemed sympathetic to Die Welt’s argument that it’s reasonable for a recipient of a sext to assume that the penis featured in the message belongs to whoever sent it.

Regardless of the ruling, Homolka has done real damage to liberal Judaism in Germany. “First they kill us, then they remake us—but they remake us as they want us to be,” said Andrew Steiman, a rabbi based in Germany. “It’s worse than erasure. You erase what you don’t like and form it again in your own image.”

This story has been updated since publication to reflect Rabbi Walter Homolka’s responses to AIR MAIL’s queries

Laura Moser is a Berlin-based journalist