German gov, Jews disagree over educational funds

Germany's orthodox Jewish community is accusing the government of discrimination for not funding the orthodox Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin while providing money to the country's only other seminary, which is more liberal.

For almost a year, orthodox Jewish leaders have repeatedly asked the federal government to support their seminary with the same amount of annual funding that it gives the liberal Abraham Geiger Kolleg — about euro300,000 ($410,000) through the German Interior Ministry — Rabbi Josh Spinner of the orthodox Rabbinical Seminary told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Now, Spinner said, he has decided to make his complaints public.

"What has begun as a simple request for funding has turned into discrimination and a case about what moral, historical and legal rights the German government has to choose its Jews," said Spinner, who is a board member of the seminary. "We are expecting the government to treat all religious denominations equally."

But Rabbi Walter Homolka, the director of the Abraham Geiger Kolleg — founded in 1999, 10 years before the Rabbinical Seminary — defended the German government's stand, saying that the orthodox seminary had only been around for a very short time and needed to prove the value of its education first.

"Otherwise, every religious group could come and say it wants money from the German government," Homolka said.

Despite not providing the Rabbinical Seminary funds, the German Interior Ministry noted it supports the education of orthodox rabbis in Germany by providing an annual grant of euro500,000 ($685,000) to the Heidelberg Learning Center for Jewish Studies.

However, the Heidelberg school does not ordain rabbis, the school's spokeswoman Desiree Martin said.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, who did not give her name in line with department policy, said the ministry was continuing talks about the issue but had no further comment.

Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews — which represents both liberal and orthodox Jewish communities — criticized the government for treating the two denominations "unequally" but said he wouldn't go as far as saying the government was discriminating against the orthodox community.

"It is obviously not correct that the liberal seminary gets extra funding which the orthodox seminary does not get," Kramer told the AP.

Around 250,000 Jews live in Germany today, far less than the country's flourishing Jewish community of 560,000 — and its cultural and intellectual prominence — before the Third Reich. Some 6 million European Jews were killed in the Nazi genocide, including 200,000 from Germany.

According to Kramer, the majority of Jews in Germany who belong to religious communities can be described as living a traditional form of Judaism that's "somewhere between liberal and orthodox."

"There are about a handful of communities who are truly orthodox and the same amount of liberal communities," Kramer said.

There is a separation of church and state in Germany. No religious group has the right to expect financial support from the government, but once the government decides to provide funding for one group, other groups can demand equal treatment and also demand funding, said Benjamin Ladiges, a lawyer familiar with the case.

Traditionally, the government collects church taxes from people who register themselves as Catholic or Protestant, then transfers the money to the churches. The government does not collect taxes from Muslims or Jews, but it does support the Central Council of Jews in Germany with euro5 million grant annually for rebuilding Jewish life in Germany.

Recently, the German government also gave a euro300,000 grant to train imams at a new program at the University of Osnabrueck which will last through 2013.