The College was founded in 1956 through the initiative and vision of Rabbi Dr Werner van der Zyl, a refugee from Nazi Germany who came to the United Kingdom in 1938. He sought to model in the UK a centre of Jewish scholarship similar to the famous Berlin Hoschshule, shut down by the Nazis in 1942, where he had studied. Van der Zyl’s original intention was to call his new institution the Jewish Theological College, but when Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck, of whom van der Zyl was a devoted disciple, died shortly afterwards the College was named in his honour.
Rabbi Lionel Blue z”l was ordained in 1958. At the time that he was a student at LBC it was illegal to be openly gay. Lionel nurtured generations of students, inspired them with his down to earth spirituality and humility, and also exemplified that it was good for rabbis to laugh.
In 1964 the College became jointly sponsored by the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (RSGB) (now the Movement for Reform Judaism) and the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues (ULPS) (now Liberal Judaism).
While women have always been admitted as students, in 1967 a decision in principle was made to accept women candidates to the Rabbinic programme, and the first woman Rabbi to graduate, in 1975, was Rabbi Dr Jacqueline Tabick.
In 1989, Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah and the late Rabbi Sheila Shulman z”l became the first openly LGBTQiA+ Rabbis to be ordained in Europe at LBC, ahead also of the Reform Movement in the USA.
In September 2011 Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris was appointed Principal of the College, one of the first women rabbis to lead a mainstream rabbinic seminary and an alumna of LBC.