The Institute of Jewish Studies at Freie Universität Berlin has existed for five decades now. The decision to establish the institute was made as part of the negotiations surrounding the appointment of Jacob Taubes (previously of Columbia University, New York) in 1963. This made the Berlin institute the first site of instruction and research in Jewish studies to be founded at a German university.
Before the Institute of Jewish Studies was founded, lectures on Jewish history and literature had been taking place regularly since the 1952 summer semester. The first person the university was able to bring on board for these lectures was Adolf F. Leschnitzer, who had studied and worked in Berlin before his forced emigration. The lectures focused primarily on topics related to the German-Jewish relationship and anti-Semitism. Then, starting in the mid-1950s, Ernst L. Ehrlich, Hermann L. Goldschmidt, Johann Maier, and Jacob Taubes taught at the department, so topics from a wide range of different areas in the “Science of Judaism” (the official title in the course catalog starting in the 1960/61 winter semester) were part of the instructional offerings.
Philosopher and scholar of hermeneutics Jacob Taubes, who died in 1987, chaired the institute until 1979, when he became the Director of the Institute of Hermeneutics. Historian Marianne Awerbuch (1917–2004) headed the institute from 1979 until her retirement, in 1983. That year, Peter Schäfer (previously a professor of Jewish studies at the Martin Buber Institute of Jewish Studies at the University of Cologne) was appointed to work at the institute. He embarked on extensive efforts to reorganize the institute itself and the Jewish Studies program. Following these activities, a second professorship was established in 1987. Michael Brocke (previously a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen) took on this position in late 1988 and held it until the fall of 1996.
During the 1993 summer semester, Joseph Dan, Gershom Scholem Professor of Kabbalah at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, started his research and teaching activities as part of a permanent visiting professorship at the institute in Berlin. Professor Dan split his time on teaching and research between Jerusalem and Berlin until 2002.
Michael Brocke was offered a position at the University of Duisburg-Essen starting in the 1996/97 winter semester. At the end of 1997, Peter Schäfer accepted an offer from Princeton University. He split his teaching activities between Berlin and Princeton until 2003.
Giulio Busi, born in Bologna, Italy, in 1960, accepted an offer for the second C 4 professorship of Jewish Studies within the Department of History and Cultural Studies as of the 1999/2000 winter semester. He previously worked as a professor of Hebrew language and literature and Jewish history at the University of Venice.
In the summer of 2002, the institute bid farewell to Joseph Dan, on the occasion of his 67th birthday and after ten years teaching at the institute. It was not possible to renew his permanent visiting professorship due to the current economic situation.
In the summer of 2003, Peter Schäfer took a leave of absence up until his retirement, in 2008. Since then he has been teaching exclusively in Princeton.
In October 2003, Tal Ilan, previously an instructor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, accepted an offer for a C3 professorship in Ancient Judaism.