Scandal at Germany's Leading Jewish College A "Toxic Environment" and Allegations of Sexual Misconduct

Accusations of sexual harassment have rocked Germany's leading rabbinical training center. The allegations have shined the spotlight on one of the country's most influential Jewish officials.
Hartmut Bomhoff (left) and Walter Homolka at a book presentation.

Hartmut Bomhoff (left) and Walter Homolka at a book presentation.

Foto: Margrit Schmidt

"The whole thing is a catastrophe for Reform Judaism," says the student – we’ll call him Aaron Eckert for this story – as he hands over a USB stick. The storage device is full of images of naked or mostly naked men. There are pictures of penises, accompanied by salacious messages, such as this one from 2016: "Here, a little bedtime snack. I’m already rather drunk."

The sender of the message is Hartmut Bomhoff. At the time, he was a lecturer at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam and press spokesman for the Abraham Geiger College, Germany’s training center for liberal rabbis. Bomhoff is also the life-partner of Walter Homolka, who, as director and CEO of the college, is one of the central figures of Judaism in Germany.

At least he was until earlier this month, when Homolka announced he was stepping away from his official duties following a story in the German daily Die Welt, which highlighted a number of accusations against him and his partner. Since then, the Jewish community in Germany has been in turmoil, with some emphasizing that the accusations must first be investigated before conclusions can be drawn, while others are demanding Homolka's immediate resignation. Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has announced that an independent, external law firm will be hired to conduct the inquiry.

DER SPIEGEL 20/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 20/2022 (May 13th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Bomhoff also sent a video to another student, we’ll call him Samuel Biton, a video showing a penis being masturbated. The Abraham Geiger College student filed charges, but Berlin prosecutors suspended the investigation into the dissemination of pornographic material in spring 2021 "because culpability was slight and criminal prosecution was not in the public interest." Bomhoff said through his lawyer that he had sent the video by accident and had immediately apologized.

Abraham Geiger College, for its part, referred to a press release and asked for understanding that they are currently unable to answer questions so that they can "focus all our concentration on examining the accusations." The college is investigating the allegations "without delay" and will "consider and implement all necessary steps necessary for an external, independent and thorough evaluation of the facts."

But DER SPIEGEL reporting now shows that the episodes seem to follow a pattern. A former student at Abraham Geiger College says that "sexualized comments were common." A current employee has similar things to say about Bomhoff and Homolka. Among insiders, the place is sometimes jokingly called "Gay-ger College," an ironic play on words introduced by a rabbi. It refers to the many gay men and the numerous converts.

A Toxic Environment

Such incidents, sources told DER SPIEGEL, are part of a system, his system. Walter Homolka, they say, has amassed far too much power, resulting in a toxic environment in which complaints are ignored. Homolka’s influence is expansive. His network extends internationally, he is a recipient of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, he is the head of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany and he holds a number of other influential offices and honors as well.

Internal documents at the School of Jewish Theology refer to a "climate of fear" and to "bullying" and "intimidation." People close to Homolka describe him as imperious and speak of destroyed careers and an atmosphere in which loyalty is more important than expertise. The academic culture suffers as a result, they say. "When there are conflicts, it is said in Germany that it is an internal Jewish problem, and nobody dares to say anything. Homolka takes advantage of that, they say. Zones of lawlessness are the result," says Rabbi Walter Rothschild, Homolka’s arch-nemesis.

On top of that are concerns about damage to the Jewish community. Eckert, the student, says that years passed before he told people in Homolka’s circle of his experiences. Only in January 2022 did he write to the equal opportunities representative at the college, relating that Bomhoff had sent him pornographic material. But the perpetrator, wrote Eckert, is under the protection of his influential husband. When contacted, the university declined to provide any details and referred the reporters to press releases, adding that the university was "dismayed and extremely shaken by the accusations that have been made public."

Eckert, meanwhile, was advised to go to the police, and he was offered psychological support. But he decided against it, since he didn’t think anything would come of it. At the same time, he says, he kept tabs for several months, noting that despite the accusations and his complaints against Bomhoff, no obvious consequences could be discerned. Furthermore, he adds, it became clear that his experiences were part of a much larger problem. That is what led him to speak with DER SPIEGEL.

"I’m Not Really a Fan of Dick Pics"

It was several years ago, on his birthday in 2016, that Bomhoff sent him a photo of a penis via Facebook. Eckert was attending university in southern Germany at the time. He had spent months chatting over Facebook with Bomhoff, who was trying to bring him to Potsdam to continue his studies. Bomhoff offered him help with his application and a place to spend the night. They also discussed homosexuality and intimate experiences.

"Then, I’ll send you a picture of me," Walter Bomhoff wrote at 3:06 a.m. and zapped him a photo of genitals. "Now you know what I’ve been fondling as the two of us have been talking about everything under the sun and it."

"I’m not really a fan of dick pics," Eckert responded. "No matter who they are from."

At the time, Eckert says, there is no way he could have known that he would find himself sitting in Bomhoff’s class a few semesters later. But even after he started classes at the University of Potsdam, the student and the lecturer continued to exchange sexualized remarks. Bomhoff, for example, said at one point that the two of them could share a bed during an official trip. Even at the time, Eckert says, the chats made him uncomfortable. "But I could ignore it back then," he says today. And sending pictures of private parts, he says, is unfortunately not a rarity in the gay world.

Only when he became aware of the similar incidents experienced by Biton did it become clear to him, he says, that boundaries had been systematically crossed over the course of several years. And it made him furious. "I started wondering why I had accepted it for so long."

Bomhoff apparently realized that his messages could cause trouble for him. On Dec. 15, 2021, an institute council meeting took place at the School of Jewish Theology, at which Homolka was also present. A professor had learned of the accusations and was demanding that there be consequences. Only a few minutes after the end of the meeting, Bomhoff began deleting messages he had sent to the young man.

The European Center for Jewish Scholarship at the University of Potsdam, where Abraham Geiger College and Zacharias Frankel College are both located

The European Center for Jewish Scholarship at the University of Potsdam, where Abraham Geiger College and Zacharias Frankel College are both located

Foto: Soeren Stache / picture alliance / dpa-Zentralbild

Under (Divine) Observation

In general, the internal review of the accusations raises doubts about just how seriously the alleged misconduct was taken. Minutes of internal meetings at the institute reveal that university leadership played down the claims and sought to evade responsibility. Samuel Biton, so went the argument, had turned to Abraham Geiger College with his complaints, and not to the University of Potsdam.

"A well-organized cover-up," says Jonathan Schorsch, a professor at the School of Jewish Theology, in describing the college’s approach to the Biton case. Schorsch says he condemned numerous cases of misconduct, particularly after learning of the Eckert case in late 2021. But the director accused Schorsch of inflicting enormous harm to the school and other institutions with his publicized accusations. Furthermore, the director of the school insisted, the case had been addressed by the college "according to the relevant regulations" and declared to be without merit by the prosecutor’s office. According to meeting minutes, Walter Homolka reacted in a similar vein. Another professor urged that an amicable agreement be reached, "also because of the school’s religious mission, since we are under special (divine) observation."

In 2020, Abraham Geiger College established a commission to look into the Biton case. Homolka himself apparently declared a conflict of interest in the proceedings against his husband, but members of the commission were professionally dependent on Homolka. Biton rejected an arbitration offer: He wanted consequences, not counseling. Bomhoff ultimately received a warning, and he lost his lecturing position, but he was allowed to remain press spokesman.

Only at the end of February did Hartmut Bomhoff leave the college. The accusations of sexual harassment had reached an increasingly broad audience and pressure from within had increased. Nevertheless, an internal mail from the chancellor praised Bomhoff, saying his intellectual impulses had been an enrichment to the college. "We owe much to your work. Dear Hartmut, all the best for your new ventures!"

Then, the University of Potsdam got involved and the institution’s president, Oliver Günther, convened a six-person investigative commission. Their work is ongoing, with a report expected in August. It is said the commission is looking into a variety of accusations against Walter Homolka and Hartmut Bomhoff.

A former University of Potsdam student, now a lawyer, wanted to help in the investigative effort and in January 2022, after learning of the abuse allegations, she turned to the offices of Manja Schüle, the minister of science, research and culture for the state of Brandenburg. She then launched a misconduct survey, in which several people took part anonymously. The school director responded to her efforts via email, asking her who she was working for and telling her that no voluntary messengers to the state government were needed.

The Behavioral Codex

One of the few who is willing to use her full name when discussing alleged misconduct surrounding rabbinical training is Naomi Henkel-Guembel, the lawyer’s life partner. In 2018, she began training to become a rabbi at Zacharias Frankel College, an additional institution at the University of Potsdam under Homolka’s control where conservative rabbis are educated. In her acceptance to the rabbinate, the college wrote that it was deeply impressed by her talents and passion for Jewish life and learning.

The institution then began planning her ordination, but in September 2021, she received a letter from the decan and head of the college alleging that she had violated the institution’s behavioral codex on several occasions, that the basis of trust had been destroyed and that she was no longer a rabbinical student, effective immediately. "I was shocked," she says. "I don’t even know which alleged behavioral codex they are referring to." She believes that her expulsion was linked to her political work.

On Oct. 9, 2019, the day of the most important Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, an armed right-wing extremist tried to force his way into the synagogue in Halle. Henkel-Guembel was there, and after that, she began getting more involved. On several occasions, she says, the college told her either directly or indirectly to back off. But she became a public voice for those affected by the attack and was a co-organizer of a festival held in opposition to anti-Semitism and right-wing terrorism.

Emails show that her decision to moderate a panel at that festival meant that she risked, due to coronavirus rules in place, not being able to attend in person the introductory events for a semester in Israel. The college apparently interpreted that as a breach of loyalty. When reached for comment, the college pointed to a unanimous resolution reached together with the Rabbinic Cabinet and also listed additional misconduct. Henkel-Guembel, for example, allegedly showed disrespect for places and objects of worship.

The reference is likely to an incident from July 2019. That summer, she had portrait photos taken of herself in the community room without prior permission. In the photographs, she has a prayer shawl draped over her shoulders and the Israeli and German flags are in the background, along with a Torah scroll. The images were intended as an artistic-disquisitive examination of her identity. Bomhoff walked in and began screaming in anger, she and the photographer recall. He raged that she would be thrown out of the college and accused her of blasphemy. Bomhoff, she says, then called Homolka, who also then yelled at her through the phone. The decan got involved. The student was put on temporary "probation," was banned from the premises for a time and also had to apologize to Homolka and others. When asked for comment on the incident, Homolka’s lawyer demurred with a reference to the ongoing legal proceedings.

Naomi Henkel-Guembel likely has to restart her rabbinical training from the beginning.

Naomi Henkel-Guembel likely has to restart her rabbinical training from the beginning.

Foto: Milos Djuric / DER SPIEGEL

A Matter for the Jewish Community

Henkel-Guembel isn’t the only case of a rabbinical student losing favor with the institution. In 2016, a student was forced to leave Abraham Geiger College because of political comments he made. "I am the only one here who engages in politics," Walter Homolka, rector at the time, allegedly shouted, pounding the table. That is the account provided by the student, who is now completing his rabbinical training in the United States, in his autobiographical book "A Jew in Neukölln: My Path to Coexistence of Religions."

Just how strong is Walter Homolka’s need for control? Abraham Geiger College contractually dictates to young rabbis and cantors how they are to interact with the press. According to the 2019 students’ handbook, the college must authorize and approve every interview, and there are also rules regarding terminology. The term "liberal Judaism" or "liberally religious Judaism" are to be used instead of "reformed Judaism." The college declined to state whether the rules are still valid.

Henkel-Guembel, for her part, took her case to a labor court. The college, though, has argued that jurisdiction actually falls to the Arbitration and Administrative Court at the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The case, the college says, involves a "dispute linked to the affairs of the Jewish community." Furthermore, a ruling from the labor court, the college has claimed, would represent a violation of religious freedoms. Whether the labor court will accept that position remains to be seen.

When Henkel-Guembel learned that her rabbinical studies were coming to an end, the news was also sent out by email to dozens of people, including functionaries of Jewish training centers in France, Israel, the U.S. and the Netherlands along with university professors in New York, Stanford and Lille. Henkel-Guembel’s lifetime dream was destroyed and her income – a stipendium of 900 euros per month linked to her rabbinical studies – was gone. The head of the body responsible for distributing such stipendiums is Walter Homolka.

Henkel-Guembel says that for her, the academic path into conservative Judaism has now been blocked. "An existential break," she says. She also offers up another description: "Bullying."