January 19, 2020

A rabbi’s rabbi: Harold M. Schulweis, an appreciation

It was the summer of 1974 when I arrived in Los Angeles. A friend told me about a rabbi in the San Fernando Valley who was transforming his synagogue into one of the most dynamic congregations in the city, if not the country. “There are a thousand people every Friday night,” he said. When a thousand people were showing up for a worship service, I wanted to know what was happening.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis was happening. On that Friday night at Valley Beth Shalom, I witnessed the future of synagogue life in America, shaped by a rabbi who had a clear vision of what a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community, could and should be. The sanctuary was packed to overflowing. The music was sensational. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was shaped with kavannot, short intentional comments that framed the meaning of the prayers. The sermon was spectacular, engaging, relevant, moving. After the service, there was a beautiful Kiddush and Israeli dancing. It was a happening. 

A disciple of Mordecai Kaplan, Martin Buber, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Schulweis combined their teachings with his own deep knowledge of classical Jewish texts and philosophy to inspire and challenge his flock in Encino. For nearly 40 years, I have been his congregant and his disciple, watching in awe – a Jew in the pew – as this rabbi’s rabbi built one of the most dynamic synagogue communities in the world. At the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University, I have the privilege of teaching a course on creating sacred communities to a group of aspiring rabbis. Here, then, is my lesson plan for sharing with them the top ten God-given middot (characteristics) – that made Rabbi Schulweis the greatest pulpit rabbi I have ever known:

1) An extraordinary teacher. Whether in a formal Friday night or holiday sermon, an adult education class, or in his groundbreaking transformation of the typical d’var Torah into a freewheeling dialogue with his congregants on Shabbat morning, Rabbi Schulweis shared his knowledge and his thinking in a way that was totally accessible, revelatory, and stimulating. You always walked away from a Schulweisian study session…thinking.

2) A humorist. You also walked away…laughing. Rabbi Schulweis punctuated his sermons with funny stories, Yiddish aphorisms (which he always translated), and self-deprecating humor. An intellectual giant who could confound his congregants with unpronounceable and obscure words, he never failed to poke fun at himself and share a hearty laugh.

3) A pastor. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, teaches other pastors: “Say something on Sunday that your people can use on Monday.” Rabbi Schulweis knew this. He spoke directly to the hearts of his people, often telling true stories he heard from congregants (without attribution, of course) in his study: the challenges of parenting, the effects of depression, the costs of holding a grudge. The message was: “you come to Valley Beth Shalom, your life will be different, deeper, more meaningful and purposeful.”

4) A social activist. His eagerly anticipated High Holy Day sermons always ended with a “l’fichach” – a “therefore.” Therefore, we will create a counseling center at the synagogue, with its own separate entrance so no client will feel ashamed. Therefore, we will establish chavurot, so no one will feel alone. Judaism is a world religion, therefore we will not stand idly by while genocide occurs in Africa. Every such sermon ended with an invitation to a meeting: “Come next week on Tuesday night and join me in taking the next steps.”

5) A partner. Rabbi Schulweis understood that a rabbi alone cannot build a congregation of relationships. So, he empowered his board to become para-rabbinics, actually teaching them how to perform the functions of a rabbi – visiting the sick, leading a shiva minyan, counseling bar/bat mitzvah families during home visits. He took his leadership on annual retreats at camp, knowing there is no more effective educational setting than a total immersive experience of Shabbat. “I want shutafim – partners,” he would say, and hundreds of congregants responded to his call.

6) A musician. Rabbi Schulweis never led a prayer service by calling page numbers; he led by example. Above the choir, above the cantor, you heard his booming baritone davening. He loved to raise his voice in prayer. He wanted his congregation to sing, to clap hands, to dance, to embrace each other as we sang “Shalom Aleichem” or Shabbat morning Kiddush. He loved his long-serving cantor, Herschel Fox, encouraging him to engage the community in prayer. He commissioned the great Ami Aloni to compose original music for the service, melodies that were instantly singable, melodies that raised the spirit.

7) A poet. Read the remarkable poetry of Rabbi Schulweis that graced the worship and your heart will be moved. http://www.schulweisinstitute.org

8) A builder. When Heschel Day School moved to Northridge from the campus of Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Schulweis established his own Jewish day school. When the synagogue grew in numbers, he expanded the facilities. When it was clear he needed additional staff, he invited young rabbis to join him, rabbis such as Ed Feinstein who cherished the opportunity to sit at his feet, to learn his Torah, to emulate his rabbinate.

9) A visionary. Rabbi Schulweis could see the future and he knew what needed to be done to create it. He had an idea a minute. He could not sleep at night, restless with the long list of things that had to be done, the causes that merited support, the wrongs that needed righting. He understood the importance of interfaith relations. He championed the righteous Gentiles. He welcomed the Jew-by-Choice, the LGBT, the Jews in recovery. He invited bereavement groups to meet in the synagogue. He pushed the Conservative Movement and his rabbinic colleagues to embrace the future. When he spoke at their conventions, everyone sat on the edge of their seats, knowing they were hearing a prophetic voice, a voice of conscience, a voice of challenge, a voice steeped in tradition, but unafraid of change.

10) A friend. Rabbi Schulweis enjoyed nothing more than walking through his congregation during the Torah processionals, greeting his people and guests. This was no perfunctory task for him; he stopped to shake hands, to hear a comment, to embrace children. Inevitably, as the Torah scrolls were placed in the ark, he was still working the sanctuary. At the end of each service, he stood at the door, anchoring a “receiving line” so he once again could connect with his congregants and the many visitors who came to see what was happening at VBS. When there was a simcha or a loss, invariably there was a personal letter, a phone call, a visit. Rabbi Schulweis taught that God resides “in the between,” in the relationships among human beings shaped to be “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. This he modeled in his relationships with each and every one of us. Pirke Avot 1:6 teaches: “Aseh l’kha rav, uk’nei l’kha chaver” – “find yourself a rabbi, and you will find a friend.” Rabbi Schulweis also knew: “Aseh l’kha chaver, uk’nei l’kha rav” – “make yourself a friend to your people and they will make you their rabbi.”

One more thing rabbis can learn from this extraordinary man: his love, admiration, and pride for his wife Malkah and their children and grandchildren. It was clear to all of us that they were the foundational grounding for his work. A rabbi is a very public figure. Without the support of family, it is impossible to truly be present to the thousands of people clamoring for your time and attention. The twinkle in his eye when he spoke of Malkah, the smile on his face when they embraced after a service or on the dance floor at a simcha – this was a life lesson to be savored and cherished.

I, like so many others, was blessed for having had the honor of calling Harold M. Schulweis “my rabbi.” Your teachings, your legacy and your example will always be a blessing to rabbis, teachers, and synagogue leaders for generations to come.

Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing).