Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, z’l, 1930-2009
I was saddened to learn of the death of my friend and colleague for so many years Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk of blessed memory. Much has been said in recent days and much remains to be said.
Permit me to elaborate just a bit on Fred Gottschalk service to the Council and the Museum and then to share with you a basic biography that appeared in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.
When President Carter named the 24 member President’s Commission on the Holocaust, he included the heads of all three major Jewish Rabbinical schools; Rabbis Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University, Gerson Cohen Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Alfred Gottschalk, then President of the Hebrew Union College. He felt that he needed the intellectual and spiritual leadership of the American Jewish Community to recommend an appropriate memorial to the Holocaust. While the service of the other two seminary presidents was perfunctory, Gottschalk gave the Commission and later the Council serious time and enormous energy. Gerson Cohen of blessed memory took ill and his successor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, was opposed what he regarded as the excessive emphasis on the Holocaust fearing that it present a lachrymose theory of Jewish history. He tried to have Yom Hashoah moved to Tisha B’av and though impressed by the Museum when he visited it shortly after its opening, he was not a factor in its creation or sustenance. Rabbi Lamm resigned from the Council after Elie Wiesel left as chair in 1986 fearing that the Museum would not represent Jewish memory. He was unwilling to stay and fight for such representation.
A busy man with significant demands on his time and four campuses to run, Gottschalk embraced the proposed Museum as a calling. He brought a historic Bible rescued from the Holocaust – like him, it was an “ud muzal me’esh, plucked from the fire -- to the first searing in ceremony at the White House in 1979 and for many years, until the Museum had created its own archive, to the swearing in ceremonies that followed. At various times he head the Education Committee and the Academic Committee, chairing such Committee at a time when their work was controversial and the issues they dealt with were heady.
He was a wonderful bridge between Israeli scholars, who were to say the least ambivalent about the Museum’s creation and American scholars who were had embraced its creation because he felt quite comfortable in both settings and his own philosophy of Judaism envisioned mutual intellectual cross fertilization between the two great centers of world Jewry. He made the staff of HUC available to the Museum for planning the Library and the Archive. Thus Abraham Peck, among other HUC scholars, served on the Library and Archive Committee.
He also made available to us the famed Reigner Telegram, which came from the American Jewish Archives on the HUC campus in Cincinnati. We had the original of this famous document for the Museum opening and the right to create a facsimile for subsequent display. The document was a telegram from Samuel Silberman to Stephen Wise at the American Jewish Congress informing him of that:
…that there has been and is being considered in Hitler's headquarters a plan to exterminate all Jews from Germany and German controlled areas in Europe after they have been concentrated in the east. The numbers involved is said to be between three and a half and four million and the object to permanently settle the Jewish question in Europe.
The history of that telegram, what happened to it and what was done to ensure that there were to be no others is essential for understanding American policy toward the mass murder of Jews, we now call the Holocaust.
Fred was particularly proud of his leadership role of the Museum at a critical moment of transition. When Elie Wiesel resigned in December 1986, there was a significant gap in leadership. The Council was divided between Wiesel’s supporters who wanted to plead with him to rescind his resignation and resume his leadership, and those who were critical of that leadership and wanted to get on with the business of planning and building the Museum. Gottschalk stepped into the vacuum and served as Council appointed – not Presidential appointed – interim chairman for a critical three month period until Harvey M. Meyerhoff was appointed Chairman by President Reagan. He properly regarded it as the high point of his service, steering the Council leadership through a difficult void at the core of its leadership and putting the pieces together again after a retching division, thus allowing for a relatively smooth transition and ensuring that the Council could function after the departure of so major a leader. As the number of founders diminishes with the passage of time, Gottschalk’s contribution should be noted and acknowledged.
Anyone who worked with Fred quick learned that he was a mensch; his personal kindness and friendliness were legion. I was graced by that kindness. One example among many: toward the end of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust 1979 trip to Poland and the Soviet Union, Denmark and Israel, Fred approached me and said: “you look like you need a break and you surely have earned it. Stay an extra week in Jerusalem. It sounded more like an order rather than an invitation. “I have made the faculty apartment at HUC’s Jerusalem Campus available to you and your family.” It was a kindness that I never forgot, one of so very many that he offered to those who worked with him.
He was a man blessed with wisdom and warmth, which is why he could effectively work with so many who were so brilliant at HUC.
Perhaps we can best understand his dedication if we look at his biography.
Alfred Gottschalk was born in Oberwesel, Germany in 1939, and immigrated with his family to the United States in August 1939, just weeks prior to World War II. His parents had been comfortable in Germany as wine, grain, and hide dealers. His grandmother had been one of the first woman mayors in the Weimar Republic.
Upon arrival in the United States, his parents worked in the garment industry for seven dollars a week so young Alfred had to peddle newspapers. He entered school without speaking English. By the time he graduated high school, he was a football player, playing semi-pro. Though offered a scholarship to Brandeis and Brown, he chose to stay close to his recently widowed mother. After graduating from Brooklyn College he studied at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, first in New York and later in Cincinnati, where he was ordained in 1957.
He was appointed dean of the newly established California School of HUCJIR in 1959, which served the rapidly expanding Jewish community of Los Angeles and all of California. Concurrently, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California (1965). Gottschalk served as dean until 1971, when he was appointed president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, succeeding Nelson Gleuck, as the sixth president of the college, which had become a four campus facility. Headquartered in Cincinnati, the college has thriving programs in Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem. He was also the John and Marianne Slade Professor of Jewish Intellectual History.
Under his leadership, the college was set on firm financial footing. He ordained the first woman rabbi of the contemporary era in Sally Priesland and opened both the Rabbinical and Cantorial School to women. He established the first school of Jewish Communal Service and also was the first to train Israelis for the Reform rabbinate in Israel. The first Israeli woman Reform rabbi was ordained in 1992.
Leadership of the Reform movement is divided between the congregational arm, which was the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union of Reform Judaism) and The Hebrew Union College. Together with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, another German-Jewish refugee, Gottschalk provided stable and innovative leadership for Reform Jews, which has overtaken the Conservative movement as the allegiance of choice for a plurality of the American Jewish community.
Deeply sensitive to good fortune to be a refugee from Nazi Germany and thus to escape the Holocaust, Gottschalk was appointed in 1979 to the President's Commission on the Holocaust and then in 1980 to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He chaired the council's Academic Committee and stepped in as acting chairman of the council when Elie Wiesel suddenly resigned as chairman in 1986. He brought administrative skill and much needed stability to his brief service. After his retirement from Hebrew Union College in 1996, he served for a time as president of New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. He participated in the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan's second term but was not hesitant to criticize the President over the Bitburg issue.
Gottschalk's main interest is modern Jewish thought, particularly its relation to earlier Jewish sources. He was a leading authority on Ahad Haam, the leader of cultural Zionism. He contributed articles on this subject to various publications. In addition, he has published Your Future as a Rabbi – A Calling that Counts (1967; 1989) and Ahad Ha-Am as Biblical Critic – A Profile (1970).