‘Catastrophe for Reform Judaism’: Leading figure steps down after sexual harassment claims

Students allege rampant sexual harassment at German reform rabbinical college perpetrated by head rabbi and his partner.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

A prominent rabbi who is considered one of the leading figures of Reform Judaism in Germany recently stepped down from his position as director and CEO of Abraham Geiger College after bombshell reports that he and his partner sexually harassed male students for years.

Rabbi Walter Homolka and his partner Hartmut Bomhoff, a Jewish studies lecturer at the University of Potsdam and a spokesman for Abraham Geiger College, are now the subjects of an investigation into what some say is a longstanding pattern of sexual overtures, propositions, and other inappropriate behavior.

The accusations have roiled Germany’s Reform Jewish community, as Homolka did not officially resign from his positions. Rather, he is temporarily suspending his activities until an independent investigation into the claims can be completed, while some in the community believe he should be officially stripped of his titles immediately.

“The whole thing is a catastrophe for Reform Judaism,” said a student speaking to Der Spiegel, who studied at Abraham Geiger College.

He recounted that “sexualized comments were common” at the institution, adding that Homolka used his position of power to instill a “climate of fear” through “bullying” and “intimidation” towards those who bristled at the rampant sexual overtones within the school.

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“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,” Rabbi Walter Rothschild, a longtime critic of Homolka, told Der Spiegel.

A student at the University of Postdam told Hebrew-language media about an incident with Homolka’s partner, which occurred while he was enrolled in a course taught by the man.

“In 2019, I had a Facebook conversation with a lecturer … Homolka’s partner [Bomhoff] and the conversation suddenly turned into a disturbing and intimate conversation,” the student, who did not want to be identified, told Channel 12 News.

During the conversation, he sent a lewd image of male genitalia, which made the student “extremely uncomfortable.”

At first, the student kept the incident to himself. “I was afraid [to report] that because he was ‘the husband of’, because he was in a position of power,” he said.

However, after hearing that other students in his class had similar experiences, the student filed a complaint with the college.

Several students had “received sexual propositions from him – for example, to join him in a sauna or similar offers.”

Nothing was done about his complaint, the student said, because “everyone investigating was an employee of [Bomhoff’s] and it was clear to me that the investigation procedure and results were not legitimate.”

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The student said he reached out to police, who told him that sending an unwanted pornographic image does not warrant an investigation in Germany.

“A well-organized cover-up,” Jonathan Schorsch, a professor at the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam, who is familiar with the student and the incident, told Der Spiegel.

Schorsch said that he raised the alarm about the incident to the administration but was then accused of creating negative publicity for the school and was pressured to tone down his criticism.

Homolka is an executive board member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Honors he has received include the French Knight of the Legion of Honour and the Order of Merit of Berlin.