February 28, 2020

Uri Herscher: Compassion, Gratitude, Tears

Uri Herscher

The last thing I expected when I first met Rabbi Uri Herscher in the late 1990s was tears. All I knew about him was that he was a major player on the Jewish scene launching an extraordinary project near Mulholland Drive called the Skirball Cultural Center. He was coming to my ad agency to review some creative ideas that might help promote his labor of love.

We showed him a billboard design with the line, “Freedom Celebrated Daily.” He said nothing. A few seconds later, I could see his eyes tear up. That was my introduction to Uri. Throughout our friendship, I have seen it often: If he feels something deeply, he will share it. That day at the agency, he shared tears of appreciation.

Several decades earlier, at his high school graduation, he had seen the tears of his father as he handed Uri a stack of old family letters.

“This is your legacy,” his father told him.

As Uri reminisced during a keynote address in 2011, “They were letters written in Yiddish … and [my father] said, ‘What I’ve done, Uri … I’ve translated them from Yiddish to German, and now it’s your turn to translate them from German to English,’ and that’s what I did. And I did it with a lot of tears.”

Two of those letters hang in his office. One is from his maternal grandmother, who had just received a visa to go to Mandate Palestine but refused to go. She wrote to Uri’s father: “You know, I’ve just taken in a child born out of wedlock, and I will not leave without the child.”

The grandmother and the child ended up perishing in Auschwitz. As Uri said in his address, “Had she thought of herself alone, she would have left the child. But there was no such thing.” That letter, he added, “says you come from a stock where a grandmother would not neglect a child she took in and she would not go to what would have been her life and freedom without the child.”

When Uri says the letters from his grandmothers are “anchors” to the Skirball and have given him ‘enormous strength,’ it’s easy to believe him.  

The second letter was from his paternal grandmother. Uri’s father was worried about her. In a letter, he asked: “Dear Mother, are you hungry?” The mother wrote back: “Dear Son, I’m not hungry, but let me tell you: The day that I would feel that I’m hungry, that’s the day when somebody comes to my door and asks for food and I don’t have enough to share.”

When Uri says the letters from his grandmothers are “anchors” to the Skirball and have given him “enormous strength,” it’s easy to believe him. The stories have clearly infused in him a deep sense of compassion; while the freedom he celebrates daily in America — which his two bubbes never got to enjoy — have clearly infused in him a deep sense of gratitude.

In a way, the Skirball embodies a marriage of these two sentiments — compassion and gratitude.

It is with both sentiments that Uri has approached one of the most important acts of his professional life: handing the leadership of the Skirball on July 1 to his chosen successor Jessie Kornberg, who has been running Bet Tzedek (The House of Justice) for the past five years.

This passing of the torch, which is the subject of our cover story by Managing Editor Kelly Hartog, is a key milestone for our community. For one thing, the Skirball has become one of our most treasured institutions. It serves as a uniquely popular bridge between the Jews and America, merging the particularity of the Jewish experience with the universality of the American experience. What philosophers talk and write about, the Skirball has done in practice.

In a way, the Skirball embodies a marriage of these two sentiments — compassion and gratitude.

Few organizations are as attached to their leaders as the Skirball is to Uri Herscher. He has nurtured the center since its inception. Gradually, with the support of a devoted team and the backing of generous donors, he has thoughtfully expanded and enriched the center to create a “city on a hill” fully dedicated to the Skirball vision.

Just as thoughtfully, as you’ll read in our story, Uri has helped select and groom his successor. 

When he shared the news about Kornberg over lunch recently, you’d think he had just won the lottery. He was brimming with joy. As our story reports, finding the right successor has weighed heavily on him for years. Now he found her. He was both relieved and grateful.

It is customary, when major figures pass the baton, to soften the edge of the goodbye by saying things like, “They’re not really retiring” and “They’ll still be involved.”

It’s certainly true that Uri will still be involved with his beloved Skirball and with other causes, but it’s also true that this represents the end of a memorable chapter — both for Uri and for our community.

We can only hope that the Jewish communal world will continue to develop leaders of Uri’s caliber — leaders who can hear the stories of our ancestors and create exquisite spaces of light and inspiration for all of God’s children.

As we honor Uri for all he’s done for our community, one way we can thank him is to shed tears of appreciation.