On Sunday, I traveled back in time for a day to the synagogue community where I grew up to remember my mentor and teacher, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis. A truly remarkable individual, Rabbi Schulweis is regarded by many as the most influential synagogue leader of his generation. He passed away last week at the age of 89.
Even if you never met Rabbi Schulweis your experience in synagogue and Jewish life, wherever you’ve lived it, was influenced by his ideas and his vision. In person, I can try to explain it. In writing, I don’t know how to.
On Sunday it was my profoundly sad privilege to deliver one of the eulogies at Rabbi Schulweis’ funeral. It was surreal to stand beside his casket on the bimah and speak from his lectern before the throngs of synagogue participants and communal leaders present in that sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California.
Below is my eulogy for Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, December 21, 2014. I share it with you to honor his memory and our bond in synagogue community here at Chizuk Amuno. May the memory of this righteous man be a blessing.
“I am a rabbi because Harold Schulweis was my rabbi.
His passion inspired me. His compassion touched me. His fierce intellect taught me to take Judaism seriously, to see our tradition as an ethical voice of conscience and conscientiousness. Rabbi Schulweis taught me to interpret with intelligence and to create with meaning always using the vocabulary of Jewish tradition and the memory of Jewish experience.
I heard in his uniquely resonant voice wisdom for life and purpose for living. The power of his oratory was in the truths of which he spoke and the issues about which he thought out loud. Rabbi Schulweis reveled in ideas: Jewish ideas, all ideas. His ideas. Therefore, so did I.
Rabbi Schulweis believed in the potentiality of his words. Elegant and precise, his words elevated us. Often complex and uncommon, his words raised us to a higher place of understanding, took us to a deeper place of insight, and moved us toward a better vision of ourselves, our people, and our society.
As he often told me, Rabbi Schulweis was a ventriloquist in the pulpit. Guiding us to make the beliefs and concepts he presented our own. Enabling us to create the Jewish communities he imagined.
I was 14 years old when I first met Rabbi Harold Schulweis in the weeks just before he began his tenure here at Valley Beth Shalom. When I was USY President he challenged me and my teen peers to dream big dreams. He danced with us out on the parking lots at rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry. He encouraged us to dance horas and bring our energy to the synagogue on Friday nights.
When I was a college junior he invited me to travel from Boston and meet him in Philadelphia at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where he was to deliver the commencement address. After the speech and ceremony we were escorted to Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan’s private library where he proudly showed me original notes and manuscripts from his teacher. As I thanked him for the tour and all of the introductions he smiled, put his arm around me warmly, and whispered, “You’re welcome. Now, if you decide to go to Rabbinical School you won’t go here. You’ll go to the University of Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary.” Which I did and where he nurtured the formation of my rabbinic worldview.
Installing me as a congregational rabbi, he told my new synagogue community that the bond between rabbi and congregants must be built on mutual trust, honesty, and genuine love.
Through the years he offered counsel and asked probing questions. He invited me into his trust. Together we marked the milestones of life and career.
“Not Adam without Eve, not Abraham without Sarah, not Ron without Robin,” he said at the end of our wedding ceremony on June 22, 1980 – which was also his and Malkah’s 33rd wedding anniversary. Not Harold without Malkah, either.
When we reached the point in our relationship that he told me to call him Harold I said, “Thank you, Rabbi Schulweis.”
Through most of my adult life he was much more a part of my life than I was of his. Still, for 45 years I have been blessed to carry his voice, his words, his Torah, his advice, his caring, and his example with me.
I am a rabbi because Harold Schulweis was my rabbi.”