October 22, 2019

Harold Schulweis: Founder of a Big Judaism

“I'm having trouble with the past tense,” Rabbi Uri Herscher said as he began his eulogy for his close friend Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died on Dec. 18 at 89. With about 1,500 mourners looking on in the main sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), the synagogue Schulweis led for 44 years, Herscher tried to capture with his words the singular pain of human loss, that pain we feel when someone we love enters the “past tense.”

The memorial itself was a poignant dance between past and future, between looking back on the greatness of one man’s life and yearning to honor that greatness into the future.

Schulweis spent a lifetime negotiating that dance, and if you ask people who knew him, they’ll tell you he landed squarely in the present tense — in the urgent now. His deep knowledge of the Jewish past enabled him to challenge the present in a way that would help create a better future.

I didn’t know him well, but I saw three things in him that stood out: his sense of curiosity, his sense of justice and his love of Judaism.

All three came together during a private encounter with him about six years ago at an event at VBS. I challenged him about the modern-day obsession with tikkun olam in the American-Jewish community, which I felt came at the expense of helping our own people. Growing up in Morocco, I told him, we had to stick together for our own good, which meant I developed a type of tribal connection with Jews. 

“I love Jews,” I told him. “I can’t help myself. They’re like family.”

He listened intently, with curiosity and respect, and then countered my passion with a gentle passion of his own. He reminded me that it’s not either/or — that we must help our own and others as well, and that the Torah talks about caring for the stranger, not once or twice but 36 times.

Then he hit me with a 2-by-4: “That’s why I love my people so much,” he said. “Because they also care for the stranger!”

Schulweis had turned the tables on me. He took my love for my own people and did me one better. He gave me another major, deep reason to love Jews — because they care so much for others.

Since that encounter, I’ve come to better appreciate the American-Jewish instinct for repairing the world, and why so many Jews see it as such a Jewish thing to do. Schulweis was certainly a guiding light in that movement, but he did it the Schulweis way.

The Schulweis way meant the Jewish way. It meant repairing the world in a way that builds Jewish pride and strengthens Jewish identity.

When he wanted to draw the world’s attention to the horrific genocide happening in Darfur, he could have called his new organization Genocide Watch. But instead, he called it Jewish World Watch.

He wanted the world to know that it was the Jews who were not standing idly by; it was the Jews who were rising up and reminding the world that those African villagers being murdered were also God’s children.

For Schulweis, creating groups like Jewish World Watch was not just social justice, it was Judaism.

“All my life is dedicated to Jews and Judaism,” he said in an interview with the Jewish Journal in 2005.

His genius was to see Judaism everywhere he went. Every problem he saw — whether it was loneliness, depression or discrimination against women, gays or the disabled — had a Jewish imperative, a Jewish solution. He saw Judaism in the need to connect with other ethnic groups, and in the obligation to honor gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

He saw Judaism in the mission to enhance the synagogue experience and in the need to connect Jews of all denominations, from Reform to Orthodox. He saw Judaism in the philosophy he learned and in the poetry he wrote.

By seeing Judaism everywhere he went, he pushed the boundaries of Judaism itself. As one person said at the memorial, Schulweis understood that in a world overflowing with choice, Judaism would be “chosen only because of its highest possibilities.”

In championing this Judaism of highest possibilities, you might say he created a Big Judaism — a Judaism that would be broad and sturdy enough to weather the social storms of a crazy century.

In a way, his own life was one long Jewish world watch. He was a Jew who saw the world and imagined how it could be, and through his vision and action, he gave us all a better future.