Rabbi Harold Schulweis

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December was full of violence and tragedy – in Australia, Pakistan and New York. As the new year starts, however, we all want to find hope, light in the darkness, as Hanukkah proclaims. But wishing alone won’t do it. If we want safety and security, peace and justice, we have to work for them.The painful murder of two policemen in New York wasn’t simply a deranged reaction to Ferguson, Cleveland and Staten Island, but another instance of senselessly resorting to violence to solve problems here and around the world.

We live in a world that too often seeks to conquer and win, rather than to understand and resolve. The story of the Maccabees reminds us that, regrettably, we sometimes have to fight with more than words. But that is still a failure of imagination, vision and empathy. Often there are less violent ways to express grievances and to get one’s point across. The Talmudic rabbis decried the zealotry and self-righteousness of the Maccabees after their initial fight for justice. “Not by might and not by power,” the rabbis said, quoting the Book of Zechariah.

There must be another way, a way of forgiveness and reconciliation, a path of empathy leading to a better future.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, one of the “gedolai ha-dor”/”great ones of this generation,” passed away mid-December at the age of 89. He served, as the spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom, in Encino, virtually until the very end. A most dynamic and erudite speaker – fusing modernity and tradition – he was a Reconstructionist philosophically, although Conservative by affiliation, since the Reconstructionist movement had no seminary yet when he was ordained over six decades ago.

I was honored to both know him since the time that I was ordained as a rabbi and to speak at his congregation over the years. He usually followed my talks with words such as these: “I agree completely with Rabbi Rachlis, but the Conservative movement won’t let me say or do that.” I was always deeply honored and grateful, as well, for his appreciation of my rabbinate and what I have striven to achieve.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Schulweis pushed the boundaries of American Jewish life dramatically. His vision of a more tolerant and less violent world helped to create “Jewish World Watch” to monitor and stop genocide around the world, “Mazon: A Jewish Response To Hunger,” and “The Jewish Foundation For The Righteous” to honor non-Jews in Europe who saved us during the Holocaust.

In the sixties, he took a Jewish counter-cultural idea – the havurah – and brought it into synagogue life. As a result, havurot are central to synagogues across the country today, creating informal Jewish experiences, lifelong fellowship and extended community.

Rabbi Schulweis never let age or illness disrupt his life’s work or vision. His congregants knew that they were blessed to have his leadership and he, in turn, was grateful that they enthusiastically supported his energy, passion and vision.

As the Peter, Paul and Mary Hanukkah song “Light One Candle” tells us: “Don’t let the light go out, it’s lasted for so many years, don’t let the light go out, let it shine through our love and our tears.”

Yes, we have tears today, but also love. Rabbi Harold Schulweis’ light will endure, because all who admired him will keep his achievements and vision alive.

May his memory be for a blessing.

Happy New Year,

Rabbi Arnold Rachlis

January 1st 2015 |