Rabbi Harold Schulweis, regarded as one of the most influential synagogue leaders of his generation, died Dec. 18 at his Los Angeles home after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 89 years old.
Rabbi Uri Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center, was a freshman at UC Berkeley when he first heard Schulweis speak at a Rosh Hashanah service, and became a friend and admirer for life. On a later occasion, Herscher introduced Rabbi Schulweis to an audience, saying in part, “Harold Schulweis is a rabbi. This is a little like saying, a Rembrandt is a painting. Or a Stradivarius is a violin…He is a rabbi of rabbis…He has, as much as any rabbi in our time, given Judaism meaning, relevance and renewed purpose.”
Rabbi 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, Rabbi 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. Rabbi 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.
Rabbi 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, Rabbi Schulweis was among the first rabbis in the Conservative Movement of American Judaism to openly welcome gay and lesbian Jews into the synagogue.
Rabbi 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, Rabbi 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. Rabbi Schulweis was profiled on “60 Minutes” for his unique vision, locating moral heroism in the darkest of historical moments.
With activist Leonard Fein, who died earlier this year, 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 percent of the cost to the hungry who live among us.
In 2004, Rabbi 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?’”
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. Rabbi 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.”
Rabbi 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, Rabbi 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.
Harold Schulweis was born in the Bronx, in 1925, the son of a ferociously anti-religious editor of the Yiddish daily “Forverts.” As a child, Rabbi 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, chasidic 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, Rabbi Schulweis authored nine books and hundreds of articles in which he offered a unique interpretation of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Rabbi 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. Rabbi 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 that 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 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 the Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Rabbi Schulweis is survived by his wife of 64 years, Malkah, his children Seth Schulweis of West Los Angeles, Ethan Schulweis of Beit Hashita, Israel, and Alyssa (Peter) Reich of West Los Angeles, and 11 grandchildren.