Germany on Thursday ordained its first rabbis since World War II in an event hailed as a milestone in the rebirth of Jewish life in the country responsible for the Holocaust.
The three men were given their ordination certificates at the ceremony in Dresden's modern, stone synagogue, which was rebuilt after the fall of the Berlin Wall — the first in the former East Germany
Daniel Alter, 47, of Germany, was the first of the three to be graduated from the Abraham Geiger College.
He was joined by 35-year-old Tomas Kucera, of the Czech Republic, and 38-year-old Malcolm Matitiani, of South Africa. All three wore black robes with white prayer shawls trimmed with tassels draped around their shoulders.
Some 250 people, many of them from Jewish communities across Europe and in Israel, attended the ceremony. Afterward, the governor of Saxony hosted the new rabbis and those attending the ceremony for a reception.
They are the first rabbis to be ordained in Germany since the Nazis destroyed the College of Jewish Studies in Berlin in 1942, midway through the war.
Just before the ceremony, Matitiani said he was "excited and happy" and that there was a twofold significance to being ordained in Germany.
He told The Associated Press it is important for him "because of the scholarship and the symbol of reviving Judaism in Germany."
"It's the birthplace of progressive Judaism and it has a long history of Jewish scholarship," he said.
The American Reform Judaism movement has its roots in Germany in the mid 19th century.
Germany had a thriving Jewish community of more than 500,000 when the Nazis were voted into power in 1933 and began to implement their anti-Semitic policies, causing many to emigrate.
About 200,000 German Jews were among the 6 million European Jews killed by the Nazis, leaving only between 10,000 to 15,000 in Germany in the first years after the war.
After decades of little growth, the German Jewish community has more than tripled since reunification in 1990, thanks in a large part to a government program to take in Jews from the former Soviet Union. More than 100,000 Jews now live in some 102 established communities throughout the country.
"After the Holocaust, many people could never have imagined that Jewish life in Germany could blossom again," German President Horst Koehler said before the event. "That is why the first ordination of rabbis in Germany is a very special event indeed."
To help serve the burgeoning community, Abraham Geiger College — named for the liberal rabbi considered the founder of the Reform, or liberal Jewish movement — opened its doors in 1999 in conjunction with the University of Potsdam in eastern Germany. It is a private, nonprofit institution that is sponsored by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the German government and the Leo Baeck Foundation.
Alter, Kucera and Matitiani are the first graduating class. Alter and Kucera will remain in Germany while Matitiani will return to his native South Africa.
At a news conference Wednesday, the college's director, Walter Homolka, said the ordination was only the beginning.