Milk & Honey Team Excursion to The Roots of Reform: Halberstadt & Seesen

2010 – 200 Years Reformjudaism in Germany!

It was a sunny Sunday in June when the Milk & Honey Team Excursion to The Roots of Reform: Halberstadt & Seesen took place on the trail of the history of Reform Judaism. We started the day in Halberstadt, a city about 200 km south west of Berlin. Why Halberstadt? It is the birthplace of Israel Jacobson, ‘father’ of the Reform movement.


Arriving in Halberstadt we were greeted by a statue of ‘Roland’—a large sandstone figure of a knight representing medieval independence of city governments over the nobility. And indeed Halberstadt has a medieval feel to it with its half-timbered homes lining the streets in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. We walked by thousand-year old stone walls, along cobbled streets to the 12th century “Jew’s Street.” Suddenly there was a rounded arch leading to a blank space. It was the archway and door to the Berend Lehmann Palais, now gone. Berend Lehmann was a banker and court Jew under Saxony’s August the Strong in the early 18th century. Born in Halberstadt, Lehmann, worked ceaselessly to promote Judaism in Germany. As philanthropist he donated monies for an impressive synagogue in Halberstadt (1712) and for his ‘Klaus’—a theological house of study and archive, making Halberstadt an important center of Talmud learning. Later in his career, Lehmann was called to the royal court in Dresden where he helped August the Strong financially to obtain the Polish crown. But back to our arch and missing palace, Lehmann’s baroque house stood here until 1986 when it was demolished—symbolic of the lack of interest at that time for the rich Jewish history of this city in which once 12% of the population was Jewish. Today Halberstadt is again a center of learning for things Jewish so we walked through the empty archway to see how this has happened.

In 1995 the Moses Mendelssohn Academy was founded in Halberstadt and that was our first stop. Half of the building is the former Klaus Synagogue of Rosenwinkel Alley. It is now used for exhibits, events and international encounters. Director Jutta Dick gave us a tour not only of the Academy but back outside to Baken St. where the magnificent baroque synagogue once stood. Today it is a contemplative site, a combination of art and nature, with the marked cornerstones of the synagogue competing with bluebells and poppies for space. A wall is all that remains after its destruction during Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. On one piece of sandstone I pointed out a telltale 4-sectioned box to one of our office staff. This, I told her, is when a neo-Nazi carves a swastika into the stone and someone counters it by filling in the lines to make a box. Our host was quick to tell us that, although Halberstadt has indeed had some neo-Nazi problems, there are countless citizens initiatives responding to this. And indeed, it was heartening to see all the programs, and events on Jewish subjects that happen here. In the Berend Lehmann Museum and Mikwe House we saw a wall covered with photos of the Halberstadt Jewish community members. Each one, we were told, had been donated by a former citizen who returned to tell her or his story of deportation, fleeing and survival. Some frames remained blank in the hopes of more such visitors in the future.

Surrounded by menorahs in Café Hirsch we enjoyed apple cake and a latte amazed to be sitting in the native city of Israel Jacobson. Jacobson was born here in 1768 and profited from a Jewish education before moving on to Seesen where he founded the first Reform temple in the world as well as a liberal school of education. It was time to head off to Seesen. Driving half an hour further west we arrived in another quaint town with a medieval center. Seesen is smaller than Halberstadt but in terms of its history of Reform Judaism, it plays a huge role. Here we were greeted by an eye-catching wall mural seen from the car announcing: “Synagogue Seesen 1810 – 2010” with a picture of the beautiful modern temple of 1810.

The Jacobsen Temple was the first in the world to have an organ; hymns were sung by a choir and prayers were in both Hebrew and German. A successful banker, businessman and philanthropist, Jacobson founded a school where Jewish and non-Jewish boys learned together—very much in the spirit of Moses Mendelssohn’s ideas of the Enlightenment. The follow-up school building still exists today and dominates the central square of Seesen where the mayor himself, Mr. Hubert Jahns gave us a tour. He showed us a brand new wooden model of the Seesen temple. It happened that a TV crew was filming the model as June 13 – 19th, 2010 was the week for commemorating 200 years of the Seesen temple with events throughout the city. It was great to see so much local interest! In a nearby baroque church we listened to rehearsals for the evening concert of synagogal music. We walked along Jacobson Street and stood where the temple once stood on Jacobson Square. We chatted with the mayor in the former Jacobson School, now a meeting place for all Seesen citizens. And it felt as if the city really does honor the founding father of Reform Judaism, not just for a week but the year-round.

At the old Jewish graveyard that had been desecrated in the Nazi era but is now maintained, we found the grave of Israel Jacobson’s eldest son Meyer, of students from the school and even the ‘School Mother’ Bella Ehrenberg, and you could almost sense the life and times of the Jacobson School.

En route to Berlin, our Milk & Honey Tours expert on Jacobson, Hartmut, regaled us further with Jacobson tales including his purchase of various former Catholic cloisters gone bankrupt! So we had to stop of course at one of these, the cloister of Woeltingerode, now a tourist site with hotel and restaurants. The ancient walled abbey took us back in time once again as we followed the trail of Israel Jacobson. Next stop Berlin where Jacobson would host a liberal synagogue in his own home…but that will have to wait for another blog entry!