From Artilleriestrasse to Upper Berkeley Street: The Origins of a Rabbinical College

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The Leo Baeck College is one of the few institutions to be born out of the German refugee community in Britain, to have preserved the values of its origin, to have made the transition to a new culture and to have won for itself the respect of a new generation and built a new leadership. Its origins lie in the rabbinic seminary that was a quintessential product of pre-war German Jewry, the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. For the first half of its life the College was located at the West London Synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street, before its transfer to its present site at the Sternberg Centre for Judaism in East End Road, Finchley. This is a brief account of some of the stages in that first journey.

The origins of the Hochschule are recorded in the writings of Richard Fuchs who was a member of its governing body during the period from 1935 to March 1939 when he received unexpectedly a passport and was able to leave for England.

   It was opened in Berlin on 6th May 1872. Its name was Hochschule fur
   die Wissenschaft des Judentums; the German term Hochschule includes
   universities as well as all other institutions of higher education
   of equal rank. According to the 'Statutes' of the new
   institution, its object was 'the promotion of the Wissenschaft
   des Judentums' [the scientific study of Judaism]
   (Section 2); teaching was to extend to this entire subject
   (Section 5) and therefore not to be restricted to theology;
   the lectures were to be delivered 'for the sole sake'
   of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (Section 21). The
   teachers had to be in possession of the scholarly
   qualifications required for admission as lecturers at
   German universities (Section 11); the students had
   to be qualified for attending a State
   university (Section 15). Although the training
   of rabbis and teachers of Jewish religion had
   to be envisaged as the main practical purpose, nontheological
   students, including women, and also non-Jews were admitted.
   All teaching and all examinations were to be gratuitous
   according to timehonoured Jewish tradition;
   they remained so until 1936.

      From the very beginning particular stress was laid on ensuring
   the independence of the new institution; it was to be 'autonomous,
   independent of the authorities of the State, of Jewish
   Communities and the Synagogues' (Section 1). In order
   to prevent the Hochschule from becoming the instrument
   of a specific religious trend, the Statutes
   provided (Section 13) that practising rabbis were excluded
   from the 'Body of Governors (Kuratorium)'.

      The founders' wish to keep the Hochschule independent of public
   authorities compelled it to rely on support from private
   sources. As these remained far below expectation,
   the Hochschule suffered almost
   continually from shortage of funds ... (1)

In his memoirs Rabbi Dr Salzberger recalls his arrival at the Hochschule in 1901 which, at that period, was called the Lehranstalt.

   The Lehranstalt was housed for many years in an annex
   to the Synagogue in Lindenstrasse; it consisted of three
   rooms: the so-called 'Lecture theatre', that was
   no bigger than a large room, the adjacent lecturer's room
   and the library. The administration lay in the hands
   of a Committee made up of prominent members of
   the community. Attendance was free.
   Regular students enjoyed sponsored free meals. It was
   hard to imagine that this Lehranstalt had been in
   existence since 1872; that Heymann
   Steinthal, who, with his brother-in-law, Moritz Lazarus
   had founded Volkerpsychologie, had taught there, and
   also Abraham Geiger, the first modern Jewish
   theologian; it was hard to imagine that this Lehranstalt
   was once able to bear the title Hochschule which,
   of course, it was once forced to give up. All attempts
   to introduce a Jewish theological faculty
   into the university had failed. …