Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, a Holocaust refugee who as a longtime leader of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion oversaw the growth of the rabbinical school’s four campuses and strengthened the Reform movement’s ties with Israel, died Sept. 12 in his Cincinnati home following a recent automobile accident. He was 79.
Rabbi Gottschalk, who also had a home in Manhattan, served as HUC’s dean, president and chancellor — and professor of Bible and Jewish Religious Thought, and Jewish intellectual history — for more than three decades, retiring in 1995. During his tenure he ordained the Reform movement’s first-ever rabbi in Israel as well as the first female rabbis in the United States and Israel, guided the expansion of the institution’s courses and physical plant, founded the first School of Jewish Communal Service in the U.S., and established the mandatory year in Israel for the school’s future rabbis, cantors and educators.
He also served as a founding member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, and president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in Manhattan.
“He’s going to be remembered as a rebuilder of the ruins from the Holocaust. He was on fire with that,” said Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, spiritual leader of The Jewish Center of the Hamptons and Rabbi Gottschalk’s successor as HUC president.
“He was the one who insisted that the strength of Reform Judaism was the academic centers. He created the L.A. school,” sustained the Cincinnati school and coordinated the New York’s school move to its present West Fourth Street site, Rabbi Zimmerman said. “His love [for Israel] led him to build the Jerusalem campus in the center of the city. He was a fierce fighter … one of the staunchest supporters of Israel and of Zionism.”
“Before Professor Gottschalk, it was not always taken for granted that so many Reform Judaism resources would be diverted to strengthening ties with Israel,” Rabbi Michael Marmur, former dean of the HUC and Jerusalem campus and now vice president of academic affairs for all four HUC branches, told the Jerusalem Post. “Professor Gottschalk was not only the only Reform leader who was extremely Zionist, but he was one of the most instrumental in bringing about a major change in Reform Judaism’s attitude toward Zionism.”
Born in a traditionally observant family in Oberwesel, a small Rhineland village, Rabbi Gottschalk experienced anti-Semitism as a child, witnessed the Kristallnacht vandalism of the Oberwesel synagogue, and emigrated with his mother in 1939, shortly before the start of World War II. His father had already left, setting in Brooklyn.
Most of the Gottschalks’ relatives died in the Holocaust.
As a teen in Brooklyn, Rabbi Gottschalk supported his family by shining shoes and as a semi-professional football player. He learned English at Sunday matinees. “I once thanked President Reagan for teaching me English — he was in the movies all the time,” the rabbi said in a 2000 interview.
Influenced by the speeches of Rabbi Stephen Wise, Rabbi Gottschalk decided to enter the rabbinate. “As a child of the generation of the Holocaust and as one who witnessed the onset of the destruction of European Jewry, I knew that I would devote myself to rebuilding Jewish life,” said the rabbi, who helped establish a Holocaust course at HUC. “This has been the key motivation of my life.”
“There has to be a legacy,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We have to have successor institutions for those lost in the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Gottschalk attended Boys High School in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College. He was ordained by Hebrew Union College and received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, where he later helped establish the school’s Jewish studies program.
Author or editor of several books, he was a member of the Board of Governors of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
Active in interfaith activities, he was a board member of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and was honored by that city’s Xavier University.
Rabbi Gottschalk is survived by his wife, Deanna; two children, Marc Gottschalk and Rachel Brenner; two stepchildren, Charles Frank and Andrew Frank; and nine grandchildren.
“I’m challenged by things that haven’t been done,” Rabbi Gottschalk said in a 1999 interview with The Jewish Week.
He often told of walking, at age 8, with his grandfather, Gustav Gerson, near an Oberwesel creek after Kristallnacht. His grandfather waded into the water to retrieve pieces of a Torah scroll the Nazis had torn to shreds.
Mr. Gerson handed the pieces to his grandson. “One day you will put it together again.”
“I’m still putting the pieces together for my grandfather,” Rabbi Gottschalk said.