Uri Herscher remembers the day 55 years ago when he heard the rabbi at an Oakland synagogue telling the biblical story of the binding of Isaac.
Herscher, then a freshman at UC Berkeley who had gone to temple reluctantly, listened as Rabbi Harold Schulweis said that the angel who stopped Abraham from slaughtering his son was not a supernatural being, but Abraham’s conscience.
“It was a stunning insight,” Herscher, now president of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, recalled. “He’s saying that God does not act alone. When people say, ‘Where was God in these atrocious times,’ he’s saying, ‘Where was humankind?’”
Schulweis, considered to be among the most influential rabbis of his generation in a career spanning his work not only as a religious leader but also as a social activist and prolific author, died early Thursday at his home in Reseda after a long fight with heart disease. He was 89.
Under his leadership, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino grew into one of the largest Conservative congregations in the western United States.
“He has, as much as any rabbi of our time, given Judaism meaning, relevance and renewed purpose,” Herscher said.
In his theology, Schulweis believed deeds were more important than ritual.
“He gave us the capacity to be believing Jews because he offered a kind of theology that moved the center of responsibility from God in heaven to us,” said Ed Feinstein, the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, who is writing his doctoral dissertation on Schulweis. “When humans take responsibility for one another, that’s an expression of God’s presence in the world.”
When people would ask how they could believe in God after the horrors of the Holocaust, Schulweis would point to the moral courage shown by gentiles who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, such as Oskar Schindler. That attitude led Schulweis in 1986 to establish what became the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, providing financial support for 600 gentiles in 20 countries who had helped save Jews.
Not quite 20 years later, he founded Jewish World Watch, which raises about $2 million a year to fight genocide in Africa and improve the lives of survivors.
He told Valley Beth Shalom member Janice Kaminer-Reznick, who was then a lawyer, that rabbis were asking where people of conscience were when the Nazis were exterminating Jews. “He realized we had been doing the same thing to other people’s genocide,” said Kaminer-Reznick, who became co-founder and president of Jewish World Watch.
Schulweis was also a leader in interfaith relations, speaking at a memorial for Pope John Paul II. “He became in many ways not only a friend but a mentor in interfaith relations,” said the Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and interreligious officer for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
In 2005, Schulweis joined Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Church of North America at the first joint commemoration of the Jewish and Armenian genocides.
Schulweis perennially appeared on Newsweek’s list of the 50 most influential rabbis in America, and also served as an advisor on Judaism for “The Simpsons,” including the episode in which it was revealed that Krusty the Clown’s father was a rabbi.
“Rabbi Schulweis was consistently throughout his life courageous and dreamed big, and showed us what dreaming big could look like,” said Rabbi Bradley Artson, the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
Schulweis was born in the Bronx on April 14, 1925. His father, who was “ferociously anti-religious,” according to Feinstein, was an editor at the socialist Yiddish-language daily Forverts (Forward). “As a child, Schulweis never set foot in a synagogue, but grew up surrounded by Yiddish poets, nationalists, revolutionaries and artists.”
In a sermon, Schulweis once said his social activism was the legacy of his father.
When he was 12, on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, he walked past a temple and was mesmerized by the music. This led him to begin studying the Talmud with his Hasidic grandfather.
He graduated from Yeshiva College in New York in 1945. Five years later, he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he studied under Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism. The same year, he received a master’s degree in philosophy from New York University. He later received a doctorate in theology from the Pacific School of Religion, a Christian seminary in Berkeley.
Schulweis taught philosophy at City College of New York, and served as rabbi at synagogues in the Bronx and in Oakland, where he was the only white person on the board of the local NAACP chapter, Feinstein said, before moving to Valley Beth Shalom.
Schulweis was encouraged to leave Oakland, Feinstein said, when he called out Jewish slumlords during a high holiday sermon, even naming names, according to one version of the incident.
Schulweis was well-known for his dynamic and lengthy sermons. During the summer, he would send out a reading list to prepare his congregation for his high holiday sermons, Artson said. “You had no idea an hour would go by,” he said. “You’d be breathless. It was an experience.”
The Schulweis Institute Library Online collections is a living repository of more than 750 audio, video and document copies of Schulweis’ writings, sermons and teachings.
Kaminer-Reznick recently visited Schulweis, who was in hospice care. “Today he wanted to talk about what the Jewish community should be doing about illegal police chokeholds and about the racial divide vis-a-vis police enforcement techniques,” she wrote in an email. “Amazing!”
Schulweis is survived by his wife of 64 years, Malkah, whom he met at a dance at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; children Seth Schulweis of West Los Angeles, Ethan Schulweis of Israel and Alyssa Reich of Los Angeles; and 11 grandchildren.