Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, ‘Rabbi of Rabbis’ and world-renowned Jewish leader, dies at 89


Rabbi Harold Schulweis, regarded as the most influential synagogue leader of his generation, died at his home after a long struggle with heart disease. He was 89.

Schulweis led the Conservative “>Jewish World Watch

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“Harold Schulweis was  a public intellectual who redefined what it is to be a Jew, an author and passionate orator who met injustices and suffering with action,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his friend and successor as senior rabbi at VBS.

“He transformed his synagogue into a living laboratory of social activism and creative spiritual life, introducing innovations that became staples for Jewish congregations across North America,” Feinstein said.

Schulweis recognized the power of congregations to shape the lives of a generation of Jews isolated from community and alienated from their traditions. In 1970, he took the pulpit of VBS in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. Under his leadership, the synagogue grew to become the largest Conservative congregation in the Western United States.

Responding to the loneliness and isolation of suburban life, Schulweis introduced synagogue-based “Chavurot” 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 also launched a para-professional Counseling Center within VBS, offering psychological and family support to the synagogue members and the wider communities. Each of these innovations has been replicated in congregations nationwide.

[MORE: “>Mazon.org), in 1985 as a Jewish community response to hunger and poverty in America. Mazon asks Jewish families celebrating life cycle moments to dedicate 3 percent of the cost to the hungry who live among us.

In 2004, Schulweis delivered a sermon at VBS 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, a coalition of some 70 synagogues, churches, schools and other groups with some 30,000 to 40,000 donors.  Schulweis’ challenge, and Kamenir-Reznik’s friendship with the rabbi, “has transformed my life and has changed my philosophy of what it means to be a Jew,” she said. “Nothing I have done in my life has been more meaningful and has had a larger impact.”

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis and Sidney Orel from Valley Beth Shalom at a Jewish World Watch march.

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, the rabbi 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 M. 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 he 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, from which 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.

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.

Diverse members of the Los Angeles Jewish community spoke of their deep sense of loss at the passing of Harold Schulweis.

Retired Los Angeles County Supervisor and longtime political heavyweight Zev Yaroslavsky remembered how, as a college student, he became the Los Angeles co-founder of the movement to pressure the Soviet Union into allowing refuseniks and other Jews to leave for Israel and other countries.

At the time, most Jewish establishment organizations looked askance at the efforts and tactics of the young protesters, but Schulweis backed them from the beginning.

The rabbi decided to talk to his congregation about the plight of Soviet Jewry, and Yaroslavsky went to hear him.

“It was like no other sermon I had heard before,” Yaroslavsky recalled. “Rabbi Schulweis didn’t preach at the congregation, but opened up a dialogue, a question-and-answer session with 700 people. I was blown away.”

When non-Jews ask Yaroslavsky about Schulweis, the former answers, “If the Jews had a pope, Rabbi Schulweis would be in the running.” Adding to the encomium, basketball fan Yaroslavsky continues, “He’s the John Wooden of rabbis. When he speaks, the most powerful, the most successful people hang on his words.

“His death is an incredible loss and he is leaving us a legacy that no one is likely to eclipse. We, who were touched by him, are the blessed ones,” Yaroslavsky said.

Scholar and peace activist Gerald Bubis knew Schulweis for more than six decades and stressed his enormous influence, through his writings and ideas, on the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as on rabbis and synagogues across the country.

Schulweis could spin out an idea and “through a process of osmotic absorption,” rabbis and laymen not only accepted the idea, but went about implementing it in their synagogues and institutions, Bubis said.

John Fishel, former president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, sought out Schulweis for advice when he arrived in this city in 1992 and, in turn, Schulweis drafted Fishel to serve on the board of Jewish World Watch.

“Harold always took on causes and projects others didn’t want to wade into,” Fishel said. “His knack was to recruit people of stature and then keep them focused on the job.”

Among the numerous awards and honors Schulweis was bestowed 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.

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 Alisa (Peter) Reich of West Los Angeles, and 11 grandchildren.

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (“>Valley Beth Shalom“>Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

 

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' sermons:

The Schulweis Institute Library Online (collections is a living repository for over 750 audio, video and document copies of Rabbi Schulweis' writings, sermons and teachings. 

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis' columns for the Jewish Journal:

Jewish Journal stories on Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis:

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