February 22, 2020

Learning Leadership from Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, z’l

Much will have been written over the next few days about the massive contribution that Rabbi Harold Schulweis has made to Jewish life in our time. Yet as an observer, participant and shaper of Jewish life, I feel that there is still more than can be said. Permit me to focus on his qualities of leadership.

Schulweis is one of the very few rabbis who deftly combined local and national leadership. A pulpit rabbi usually has to tend to his/her flock and only “goes national” if he/she loses the drive and the interest to serve their own congregation, when they feel the local stifling and  the need a larger forum, greater exposure and new challenges.  Quite often, as the rabbi goes national, the congregation feels honored by his/ her celebrity but often ignored by their rabbi is not there for them. And there is a price to be paid within the community for national leadership. Rabbi Schulweis was rooted in his congregation and used his own community not only to serve the local Jewish community or even greater Los Angeles, but as an incubator for national concerns. What began at VBS went national because Schulweis was able to balance the local, national and international and have his community think big with him. Other rabbis would be wise to emulate him, to be inspired by what he has achieved.

Charismatic leadership, those who lead not only by the authority of their office but by the power of their personal presence usually have great difficulty in managing transitions to the next generation. Charismatic leaders do not want to leave the stage or to cede his/her commanding presence to someone else. They are often self absorbed and do not mentor a younger, successor generation. Joshua was Moses’s servant, not his peer. Not so, Rabbi Schulweis. VBS was fortunate to have a virtually seamless transition between Rabbis Schulweis and Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his successor. Thus for two generations the congregation will have had one of the best, if not the very best pulpit rabbi in America. The credit must go to both men:  not only did Rabbi Feinstein revere his master and mentor, but Rabbi Schulweis understood that his ultimate success would only be enhanced by a worthy, well-trained successor. Such was his wisdom and also his commitment to his own community. He was able to choose wisely, willing to cede the stage and ultimately to leave the stage.

Think of other charismatic Jewish leaders and their problems of transition, and you will only appreciate his accomplishment even more. In the United States, charismatic leadership is usually replaced by management. Witness Chabad, where the Rebbe left no successor and presumed that the institutions he established would carry on in his absence. Think of corporate transitions from the founding generation to their successors and think of other synagogues where the transitions have been tense and left congregations bereft of leadership.

Students of history do not like to speculate in what if, but I cannot resist the temptation.

Some 30 years ago, when the late chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary Gerson Cohen was felled by illness, there was a choice to be made as to who would lead the seminary and thus be the titular head of the Conservative Movement. Harold Schulweis’ name was bandied about. I am not sure that he wanted the job, at least not on the terms it might have been offered, but I am sure that he would have been considered the unsafe choice – too radical, too innovative, too divisive and not “conservative” enough. He would have had serious opposition from the religious right and also from the political right. Scholars would have felt that as a pulpit rabbi he was not scholarly enough to  satisfy the faculty, the the Cardinals of the movement. The Board of the Seminary made a “safe choice” in choosing one of the last distinguished “wissenschaft” scholar, committed to the historical study of Judaism who was bound to conserve what was important about the Conservative Movement and gently guide it into the future.

Sometimes the safe choice is not the wise choice and one can only imagine the multitude of innovative directions  Harold Schulweis might have taken the Conservative Movement were he as the pinnacle of its institutional leadership. I am certain that he enjoyed a better life at VBS than he would have at 3080 Broadway, but I am equally certain that the Conservative Movement traded safety for leadership and forfeited many opportunities.

Harold Schulweis was learned in the deepest sense of the term. He wrote important books not of technical scholarship but works that thought boldly and bravely about the Jewish future, the human future.

Harold Schulweis was an institutional builder who by his very leadership could transform the community and impact the world. Think of how be brought the intimacy of the Chavurah to VBS and how it made a large congregation into a place that felt like home. Think of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous which allowed the Jewish people to fulfill their moral obligation to those who risked their lives to rescue Jews and brought them dignity and comfort in their old age. Think of Jewish World Watch, which takes seriously the commitment “Never Again.”

Harold Schulweis was wise. I know many smart people, many highly intelligent and learned people, but far fewer who are wise.  Before I moved to Los Angeles when we were creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I sought his guidance as to what inscriptions should be written on the walls of the Hall of Remembrance. He thought deeply about the issue, about the Holocaust and its remembrance and about the Americans and citizens of the world who would visit that Museum. He vast erudition allowed him to explore Scripture and Talmud, but also Holocaust writings and poetry, and he was pastoral, thinking of what word could challenge and comfort, could appropriately remember the past yet set an agenda for the future. From our many conversations, whether brief or long, I came away feeling that I was not only with a learned man, but a wise one.

Harold Schulweis also had demonstrated how to balance the particular and the universal. He would serve his community and speak to the world. He understood Jewish concerns and universal concerns and his many institutional achievements demonstrate that he believed that Jewish tradition had the capacity, responsibility and authority to speak to the world.

A great man walked among us, a towering giant of his generation, and we are better for it. His presence was a blessing, so too, his memory.