September 16, 2019

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis: Why Ferguson matters to Jews, and what makes a rabbi’s life well-lived

From a poem by Rabbi Schulweis:

For Those Beloved Who Survive Me

Mourning by Harold M. Schulweis

Mourn me not with tears, ashes or sackcloth.
Nor dwell in darkness, sadness or remorse.
Remember that I love you, and wish for you a life of song.
My immortality, if there be such for me, is not in tears, blame or
self-recrimination.
But in the joy you give to others, in raising the fallen
and loosening the fetters of the bound.
In your loyalty to God's special children — the widow, the orphan,
the poor, the stranger in your gates, the weak — I take pride.

The fringes of the tallit placed on my body are torn, for the dead
cannot praise You, O Lord.
The dead have no mitzvot.
But your tallit is whole and you are alive and alive you are called to
mitzvot.
You can choose, you can act, you can transform the world.

My immortality is bound up with God's eternity, with God's
justice, truth and righteousness.
And that eternity is strengthened by your loyalty and your love.
Honor me with laughter and with goodness.
With these, the better part of me lives on beyond the grave.

Over the last many decades—and particularly the last 10 years, I have had the privilege of spending a considerable amount of time with Rabbi Schulweis.  It has undoubtedly changed the course of my life.

Like everyone in this room, I always loved, admired, and appreciated Rabbi Schulweis.  His intellect, his oratory, his bold conscience, his prophetic way of insisting that we dig deeper in our own souls and consciences—that we stop the argument about whether God exists and start finding the godliness and the goodliness in ourselves and those with whom we share our homes, our communities, and our planet.  There were always so many reasons to admire Rabbi Schulweis.   You know how it is—sometimes you admire someone from afar and when you get more familiar what you see is less admirable.  

Quite the opposite happened to me with Rabbi Schulweis.  The closer we got the more I admired him.    

Rabbi Schulweis was not just our rabbi and teacher and not just a social philosopher and idea generator; and, he was not just the man who called on our community to start an organization to fight genocide; For Jewish World Watch he has been so much more. He has been was an active leader in realizing the organization’s vision, day-in day-out for the past decade. He attended every monthly board meeting, until very recently when he became too weak to do so. For years, he traveled all over southern California with me, speaking to groups of all sizes, ages and faiths.  His humility was so evident in all of this community work. Several years ago we took a long drive to address what was supposed to be a sizeable audience. When we arrived, the crowd was embarrassingly small. I was horrified.  Rabbi Schulweis did not skip a beat.

He was fully engaged with the audience. He was so uplifted on our long drive back home–—never giving a second thought to the disappointing showing.      

He especially enjoyed our outings to meet with JWW’s partners in other faith communities. He loved speaking with the priests, headmasters and students in Catholic and Christian schools; he forged our relationship with the Armenian community, making sure that JWW would become the first Jewish organization to support long overdue legislation (which sadly, still has not been enacted), recognizing the Armenian genocide.  

He marched with us in front of the Chinese Embassy to protest the government’s horrific human rights violations. A few years ago, he was ready to go to Washington DC to be arrested with George Clooney as a means of drawing attention to the genocide in Darfur—we had to stop him from that one, as we knew it would not be good for his health.  In the ultimate display of support and commitment, at one of our rallies he actually put a JWW t-shirt on—so he’d be a visible member of the JWW contingent.  Of course, he wore the t-shirt over shirt and tie!

 

Over the past decade, I saw Rabbi Schulweis’ characteristic humility, warmth and charm fully evident in his one-on-one meetings with the many young teens who sought to interview him.  He treated each of these sit-downs with the same seriousness that he’d give to an LA Times reporter.  

During our Board meetings, if someone forgot a name or the disposition of a certain debate from a prior discussion—he was right there, following every word, filling in the blanks that no one else in the room remembered, even in recent months, when his health proved challenging and his energy was down. Right to the end, he would still, whenever possible, attend our meetings.  When he couldn’t make it, he always wanted a summary the next day—what was discussed? What was decided? Who attended?

And, we had a familiar ritual with each trip to Africa. He insisted on seeing us before we departed. He wanted to know our full itinerary and be reassured that we would be safe. And he would bless us.

He’d read every one of our blog entries, following every aspect of the trip. When we returned, he’d want a full debrief. How were our projects progressing? Who did we meet? He’d want stories about the people we encountered, the individuals, the children, the new connections. That is what mattered most to him. He hung on to every word, at times saddened by the reality of the situation and at times beaming with pride about our successes. It seems that through his desire for details and stories he was able to vicariously experience these difficult journeys.

My immortality, if there be such for me, is not in tears, blame of self recrimination, but in the joy you give to others, in raising the fallen and loosening the fetters of the bound.”

Of all of the visits and conversations I have had with Rabbi Schulweis, it is our very last conversation less than two weeks ago that was perhaps the most profound. It will stay with me forever. Already in quite a weakened state, Rabbi Schulweis was notably agitated about the events that lead to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, and the chokehold that killed Eric Garner in New York.  He said that these police practices are intolerable and racially biased. He asked why he was not hearing a louder voice of protest from the American Jewish community.  

Rabbi Schulweis was a man who simply could not tolerate injustice…even as his heart was fading — even as he knew his end was near…he would not give up his pursuit of and for justice.  And his expectation of us was clear as well— to continue this sacred work: 

“The fringes of the tallit placed on my body are torn, for the dead
cannot praise You, O Lord.
The dead have no mitzvot.
But your tallit is whole and you are alive and alive you are called to
mitzvot.
You can choose, you can act, you can transform the world.”

A while later that afternoon, Stan Zicklin, Malkah, Rabbi and I were visiting, and Rabbi Schulweis posed a question. He asked, “How do you know if you have lived a good life? A worthwhile life?”.  After 40 years of being his student, I did a very Schulweisian thing.  I turned it back on him. I asked him, “How would YOU evaluate whether you’ve lived a good life—?”   Without hesitation he said “A rabbi who has brought people together – people who were divergent in their views and practices, people who ordinarily would not have connected, people who were estranged, or even simply irrelevant to one another….I would say, that such a rabbi has lived a good life.”  

What a remarkable moment to experience…a man, near death, evaluating the essence of his life’s purpose as a rabbi.

About 10 months ago when Rabbi Schulweis was ill, almost every board member of JWW sent me notes to deliver to him. I want to share with you the words of one such Jewish World Watch board member…words which demonstrate, so beautifully, that Rabbi Schulweis accomplished his dream.

Dear Rabbi Schulweis:   I don't think that I have ever told you what you and  JWW have meant in my life. By allowing me to be part of your extraordinary vision, you have altered my view, not only of the world, but of my place in it. By starting this organization, you have challenged me and many others to leave our comfort zones and recognize that we can in fact DO something in places that seem so far away and remote. I see the world and our interconnectivity differently because of you.

But most of all, I have been so touched by your inclusiveness. I love that JWW embraces anyone who needs us and that while steeped in Jewish tradition, we welcome and embrace all faiths. It is a powerful message that the world so desperately needs. Diana

Yes, Rabbi Schulweis was an intellectual giant; a profound philosopher; an eloquent and prolific writer; an original thinker and a masterful speaker.  Those attributes made Rabbi Schulweis a great rabbi.  But Rabbi Schulweis was more than just a great Rabbi. He was also one of the Greatest Human Beings that any of us will ever know…and that was the quality that made him so magnetic.  

At this year’s Walk to End Genocide, it took a very long time to bring Rabbi and Malkah in a golf cart from the parking lot at Pan Pacific Park down to the area of the Walk.  People of all ages thronged around the golf cart wanting him to stop for a photo—hundreds of people, from young kids to politicos and religious leaders, were taking selfies with Rabbi Schulweis and posting them on their Facebook pages. In an era full of superficial fame, Rabbi Schulweis provides the true model of celebrity.  Indeed, not only in Los Angeles, but across the US and far beyond, Rabbi Schulweis is a superhero of a movement—a movement he started in the last decade of his life!  How remarkable.    

Between the ages of 80 and 90 when most people would be slowing down, or stopping altogether, Rabbi Schulweis conceived of and helped to grow a new global human rights organization and he found room in his heart to make a whole new group of friends—…friends whose lives became intertwined with his.  Listen to this from one of our JWW board members—also from last March:

Dear Rabbi Schulweis.

Thank you.  Thank you for standing up.  Thank you for speaking on behalf of those who cannot speak.  For being a witness.  For calling on others to do so, when your eyes, and arms, could reach only so far.  Thank you for opening your mouth and for opening my eyes.  Thank you for helping teach me to recognize a different facet of myself than I knew before, for teaching me to better understand how much one person can do and, in reaching that realization, understanding that capacity can also mean responsibility.  Thank you for having such a strong gravitational force, and for allowing me to be pulled into your orbit. Please know that if it is you now having difficulty speaking, there is a chorus of voices here ready, willing and able to continue to sing your songs and continue to speak for those on behalf of whom you have been speaking. .. Peter

On one of our trips to Congo, a group of survivors asked us to pray with them for their safety and then asked us why we came to Congo.  

I told them about how Rabbi Schulweis for 50 years had asked “where were the people of conscience when our 6 million were murdered?” I told them about Rabbi Schulweis’ sense of despair at the end of the Rwandan genocide when we knew that 1 million people had been murdered in 100 days and about the shame he felt for not having mobilized and spoken out.  I told them about the vow Rabbi Schulweis made that he would never again be silent in the face of genocide and how that led him to propose Jewish World Watch when the tragedy emerging in Darfur became clear to the world. And then I told them that in our synagogues we also pray, but that Rabbi Schulweis has taught us to pray not only with our hearts, but also to pray with our feet.  One of the people in the room stood up and shook her head in approval and said “This Rabbi is a very wise man; I want to meet this wise man and learn from him.”  

We have met this wise man, and we have learned from him, and none of us will ever be the same.  

“My immortality, if there be such for me,… is in your loyalty to God's special children

— the widow, the orphan,

the poor, the stranger in your gates, the weak – [in this] I take pride.”

It has been the greatest privilege to stand in the bright light of Rabbi Harold Schulweis and to be part of a team to help amplify that light for the good of the world.  It has been the greatest privilege to learn from him, to partner in the repair of the world with him, and, above all, to share a deep friendship with him. I will hold in the highest esteem his exceptional relationship with his perfect match, Malkah and the grace with which Malkah and her children shared their patriarch with me, with you, and with the world.  

How perfectly apt that he left us during Chanukah—during the darkest time of the year, Chanukah’s flames create light—that is exactly what Rabbi Schulweis has done  in so many profound ways for all of the years of his life.

My immortality is bound up with God's eternity, with God's
justice, truth and righteousness.
And that eternity is strengthened by your loyalty and your love.”

A friend wrote: It is said that in the end, people are judged not only by what they did but also for what they caused. Rabbi Schulweis caused so much peace, caused the lives of so many to be so much better, in some cases, caused them to be at all. He caused the world to better understand the sacred power of conscience. 

“Mourn me not with tears, ashes or sackcloth…” Says Rabbi Schulweis,

Honor me with laughter and with goodness.
With these, the better part of me lives on beyond the grave”