NEW YORK (JTA) — For me, and for the nearly 2,000 rabbis, cantors, educators, communal professionals and scholars trained during his tenure as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, no rabbi commanded greater respect and awe than our teacher and rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, who died Sept. 12. His life and accomplishments were legendary. His deepest commitments were to humanity, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
What events prompted his fierce devotion to these values?
Twenty years ago Rabbi Gottschalk delivered a powerful, culminating address at a conference of Jewish, German Protestant and Catholic theologians in Augsburg, Germany, on the theme of “Versohnung — Atonement and Reconciliation.” Speaking in German, he unapologetically said that as a professor of Bible and Jewish intellectual history, and president of the oldest and most venerable rabbinical seminary in North America, his German should have been sophisticated and fluent, not the German of a 9-year-old boy. In a voice marked by the pent-up sadness, humiliation and fury of 50 years, he recalled the day when a Nazi policeman entered his Oberwesel elementary school classroom and declared, “All Jewish children — raus!” — and repeated that word three times, in ascending, deafening volume. His primal accusation revealed the motivation for his life’s work on behalf of the Jewish people and humanity.
His words to our students each year on the day before ordination provided another glimpse of the primary trope for understanding the shape and direction of his life. He vividly described Kristallnacht on Nov. 9-10, 1938. The morning after the desecration of his town’s synagogue, this 8-year-old child watched his grandfather wade into the stream of freezing water running past the building in order to rescue the torn fragments of the Torah scrolls and prayer books. His grandfather told him that it was his obligation to protect and piece together the Torah. This narrative provided the framework for Rabbi Gottschalk’s lifelong devotion to the preservation and regeneration of Jewish life and learning.
In 1939, miraculous exit visas brought him and his mother to New York. Inspired by Rabbi Stephen Wise and his congregation’s clergy as a teenager, the rabbinate became his calling. Upon ordination in 1957, Nelson Glueck charged him as dean with the development of HUC-JIR’s fledgling Los Angeles school and its pioneering programs in communal service and Jewish education to serve the second largest Jewish population center in America and klal Yisrael. Ahad Haam, the great cultural Zuionist and subject of his doctorate from the University of Southern California, remained the lifelong focus of his writing and thought.
As president from 1971 to 1996, he championed the exponential growth of HUC-JIR’s programs, enrollment and campuses, and was the catalyst for key milestones: the ordination of the first female rabbis in America (1972) and Israel (1992); the first female cantor in America (1975); and the first Reform rabbi in Israel (1980). HUC-JIR’s Graduate School in Cincinnati, in which he took such pride, thrived as a center of advanced academic study for Jewish and Christian students alike and produced some of HUC-JIR’s leading faculty.
Emulating HUC-JIR’s vital partnership with USC, he expanded and relocated the New York campus adjacent to New York University. His love of Israel guided his vision for a dramatically enlarged Jerusalem campus as the center for Reform Judaism there. The establishment of the rabbinical program for Israeli students (1975) and the required first year of study in Israel for all stateside rabbinical, cantorial and education students transformed the Reform movement’s Zionist stance and ensured that vital links between American Jewry and the State of Israel would thrive.
The friend and confidant of countless political and religious leaders of all faiths throughout the world, Rabbi Gottschalk was appointed by Presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, where he founded and chaired the academic and education Committees, and served as president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City while serving as HUC-JIR chancellor (1996-2000).
“Tzaddikim b’mitatam hayyim heim” — the righteous even in death live on in their words and deeds. “Y’hi zichro baruch” — may the memory of Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk continue to bless us all.
(Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.)