Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion mourns the death of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, regarded as the most influential synagogue leader of his generation, who died yesterday at his home after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 89 years old.
Schulweis recognized the power of congregations to shape the lives of a generation of Jews isolated from community and alienated from their traditions by the rhythms of American life and the spiritually corrosive elements of American culture. In 1970, he was invited to the pulpit of Valley Beth Shalom in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley community of Encino. Under his leadership, the synagogue grew to become the largest Conservative congregation in the Western United States, and became a living laboratory of social activism and creative spiritual life introducing innovations that became staples for Jewish congregations across North America.
Responding to the loneliness and isolation of suburban life, Schulweis introduced synagogue-based “Havurot,” in 1971, gathering small groups of families to share religious life and family celebrations. His “Para-Rabbinic” initiative offered a revolutionary model of lay-professional synagogue leadership. Schulweis launched a para-professional Counseling Center within the synagogue, offering psychological and family support to the synagogue members and the wider communities. Each of these innovations has been replicated in congregations nationwide.
Schulweis opened the doors of his synagogue to all. He pioneered initiatives welcoming children and young adults with special needs into the synagogue’s educational and religious programs. He reached out to Jews-by-choice and unchurched Christians seeking a spiritual home. In 1992, Schulweis was among the first rabbis in the Conservative Movement of American Judaism to openly welcome gay and lesbian Jews into the synagogue.
Schulweis’ pulpit became a launching pad for his efforts to push contemporary Judaism beyond its narrow ethnic preoccupation. Judaism, he frequently preached, is a global religion, with concerns that embrace the world. “Our greatness as a religion,” he wrote, “is that we Jews conceived of ourselves as God’s allies, partners, and friends. We gave the world conscience. We gave to the world a sacred universalism that remains at the foundation of our relationship with the world.”
In 1966, Schulweis met a young math instructor at Berkeley who shared the story of his family’s rescue from the Nazis by a German Christian family. The family had never been recognized or thanked by the Jewish community. Thousands of rescuers, Schulweis learned, lived in poverty, receiving neither recognition nor aid. In response, he founded the Institute for Righteous Acts, which would become, in 1986, the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (jfr.org), recognizing, celebrating and supporting thousands of Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. Schulweis was profiled on “60 Minutes” for his unique vision, locating moral heroism in the darkest of historical moments.
With activist Leonard Fein, he founded Mazon (Mazon.org), in 1985 as a Jewish community response to hunger and poverty in America. Mazon ask Jewish families celebrating life moments to dedicate 3% of the cost to the hungry who live among us.
In 2004, Schulweis delivered a sermon on the Jewish high holidays calling for a Jewish response to genocide. He challenged the congregation:
“We took an oath, “Never again!” Was this vow to protect only Jews from the curse of genocide? God forbid that our children and grandchildren ask of us, ‘Where was the synagogue during Rwanda, when genocide took place and eight hundred thousand people were slaughtered in one hundred days?’”
According to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Schulweis’ successor at Valley Beth Shalom, “Rabbi Schulweis found the presence of God in acts of moral courage, compassion, and human decency. He constantly reminded us that we are the hands of God in this world.”
Among those moved to answer the rabbi’s challenge was attorney Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who assumed the role of founding president of the Jewish World Watch (JewishWorldWatch.org), now a coalition of Jewish organizations dedicated to raising awareness and mobilizing resources in response to the on-going genocide in Darfur, Congo, and around the world. JWW has grown into the largest anti-genocide grassroots organization in the world, with some 30,000 to 40,000 donors. Schulweis’ challenge, and her friendship with the rabbi, “has transformed my life and has changed my philosophy of what it means to be a Jew,” said Kamenir-Reznik. “Nothing I have done in my life has been more meaningful and has had a larger impact.”
Schulweis’ concern for genocide around the world, led him to reach out to the large Armenian population in his San Fernando Valley neighborhood. In 2005, Schulweis officiated with Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Church of North America at the first joint commemoration of the Jewish and Armenian Holocausts. He joined band members of the rock band, System of a Down, all of them children of survivors of the Armenian Holocaust, in an educational program affirming the common responsibilities of Jewish and Armenian youth to remember their collective experiences of genocide, and to act to prevent its reoccurrence.
Schulweis was born in the Bronx, in 1925, the son of a ferociously anti-religious editor of the Yiddish daily “Forverts.” As a child, Schulweis never set foot in a synagogue, but grew up surrounded by Yiddish poets, nationalists, revolutionaries, and artists. At the age of 12, he happened upon a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Attracted by the music he heard from the street, he slipped in and was enraptured. He began studying Talmud with his pious, Hasidic grandfather, eventually enrolling at Yeshiva College where he graduated in 1945. An ardent student of philosophy, he became a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was ordained in 1950. At the same time he studied philosophy under Sidney Hook at New York University, receiving a masters degree in 1950 with the first English language thesis on Martin Buber’s philosophy. He subsequently completed a doctorate in theology at the Pacific School of Religion. Schulweis taught philosophy at City College of New York, and served pulpits in Parkchester, New York, and Oakland, California, before coming to Valley Beth Shalom.
As much public intellectual as pulpit rabbi, Schulweis authored nine books and hundreds of articles in which he offered a unique interpretation of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Schulweis’ “Theological humanism” is rooted in the Biblical conviction that the human being bears the divine image, and in philosopher Martin Buber’s concept of God revealed in deep human relationships. Schulweis imagined God not above us, but within and between human beings. Prayer and religious observance, Schulweis instructed, are not directed above as a plea for supernatural intervention, but within – as an inspiration to individual and communal reflection, commitment and moral action. Building on the theology developed in his doctoral writing, Schulweis advocated “predicate theology,” identifying those aspects of human activity which are “Godly.” “God,” he frequently argued, “is not believed, but behaved.” Conscience is the living nexus between the divine and the human in everyday life. The cultivation of conscience is the central function of religious life and religious education.
Among Rabbi Schulweis’ greatest legacy is his vast library of publications that will live on and serve for generations to come in his memory. Just a few of note are: Evil and the Morality of God (Jersey City, N.J: Ktav Pub. House, 2010.); For Those Who Can’t Believe, Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith (1995, New York: Harper Perennial; Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage from Birth to Immortality (2001, New York: URJ Press); In God’s Mirror, Reflections and Essays (2003, Jersey City, NJ: KTAV); Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey. (2010, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights); Embracing the Seeker (2010, Halperin, M., (Ed.) Jersey City, NJ: KTAV). The Schulweis Institute online library, www.hmsi.info, offers a collection serving as the living repository for over 750 audio, video and document copies of the Rabbi's writings, sermons and teachings.
Among his numerous awards and honors are the Israel Prime Minister’s Medal, United Synagogue Social Action Award, and Los Angeles County’s John Allen Buggs Humanitarian Award, as well as honorary doctorate degrees from HUC-JIR and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Schulweis is survived by his wife of 64 years, Malkah, his children Seth Schulweis of West Los Angeles, Ethan (Cindy) Schulweis of Beit Hashita, Israel, and Alyssa (Peter) Reich of West Los Angeles, and eleven grandchildren. Contributions in Rabbi Schulweis’ memory can be sent to Valley Beth Shalom, Jewish World Watch and the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.
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