Years ago, David Twersky asked his secretary to give Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg a call. “She asked, Can you hold for David Twersky?” recalls Twersky, now the director of international affairs for the American Jewish Congress. When he picked up the receiver, however, he found that Hertzberg had hung up.
When Twersky called back, Hertzberg told him, “The only person I hold for is the president of the United States.”
Hertzberg, who died Monday at age 84 of heart failure, wasn’t making it up: Presidents, indeed, called to pick his brain. The anecdote is telling: Hertzberg was a man of enormous influence — and he knew it.
His views, say those who knew him, were frequently contrarian and often controversial, but they always were backed by an extraordinary intellect.
Born in Lubaczow, Poland, in 1921, Hertzberg immigrated to America with his family in 1926. He grew up in an Orthodox home in Baltimore and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
He served as a Hillel director, an Air Force chaplain and as a pulpit rabbi in congregations in Philadelphia, Nashville and then in Englewood, N.J., where he served as spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El for some 30 years.
In 1961 Hertzberg took a job as a history professor at Columbia University. Later he taught religion at Dartmouth College and, in 1991, joined the faculty at New York University.
“I think his death represents the end of an era, or a generation, when there were a number of prominent congregational rabbis who also served as international spokespeople, who were intellectuals and accomplished in their writing and teaching — a generation that we don’t see any longer today,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
“Here was a rabbi who served decades as a congregational rabbi doing the kinds of rabbinic service that every rabbi did: marrying people, burying people, preaching, leading a community. At the same time, he rose to prominence as the leader of several major organizations and gave voice to Jewish issues of the day, whether they were concerned with interfaith matters, the State of Israel, with human rights and civil rights.”
Hertzberg served as president of the American Jewish Congress from 1972 to 1978, and as a member of the World Zionist Congress executive from 1969 to 1978. In 1975 he was elected vice president of the World Jewish Congress, a post he held until 1991.
Hertzberg is author or editor of, among other books, “The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader,” “Judaism,” “The Jews in America,” “Jews : The Essence and Character of a People,” “The Fate of Zionism : A Secular Future for Israel & Palestine” and “Jewish Polemics.”
He also authored dozens of essays on the state of American Jewry, and an autobiography, “A Jew in America: My Life And a People’s Struggle for Identity.” He was at work on two books when he died.
Hertzberg was an early and outspoken proponent of racial equality in the United States, taking part in the March on Washington in 1963 at which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech.
He also was chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations when it became the first Jewish group to formally meet with the Vatican about the Church’s response to the Holocaust.
In interviews with JTA, friends and colleagues remembered Hertzberg as a brilliant, funny, eloquent man who was not afraid to poke fun at himself or make his opinion known about issues and individuals, sometimes in salty language.
“I think he had great love for all Jews,” Meyers said. “What he couldn’t stand is phoniness.”
In 1999, addressing 500 Conservative rabbis at a Baltimore convention, Hertzberg suggested they should get back into the business of nurturing souls. If they wanted to be CEOs, he scolded, they should have gone into business.
For some three decades, Hertzberg sat on the editorial board of Hadassah magazine.
“He was a very sharp intellect, it was always apparent,” said Alan Tigay, the magazine’s executive editor. “He was brilliant, sharp, iconoclastic. He always was a commanding presence.”
Tigay remembers one particular meeting when the topic of assimilation came up. Hertzberg suggested that the magazine summon a half-dozen leading Jewish thinkers for a symposium on the issue.
Shortly before the meeting, Hertzberg told Tigay to allot each speaker five to 10 minutes to talk — but to forbid them from stating the problem; they were to focus solely on solutions.
“He always seemed to cut through a discussion to the heart of an issue,” Tigay says.
For Joanne Palmer, Hertzberg was “a wonderful friend.”
“No matter what the problem, no matter what the situation, no matter what you asked him, he had a story — always,” recalls Palmer, director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s communications department. “He’d wander, he’d go on and on, you’d never really be sure where he was going, and then he’d come to the point and it would be perfect.”
In December, Palmer and her husband visited Israel. Before they left, Hertzberg suggested that they visit the tomb of the rebbe of Belz, who originated from the same area in Poland as Hertzberg.
Hertzberg told them that the Belzer rebbe had lost his family in the Holocaust, moved to Israel and undertaken a campaign of building and Jewish learning.
“Rabbi Hertzberg saw that as the ultimate expression of what a Jew is supposed to do,” Palmer says. The episode also reflects what Meyers says was Hertzberg’s enormous respect for his roots.
“He had a great sense of humility about his early years,” says Meyers, who as a young rabbinical student taught in the school at Hertzberg’s Temple Emanu-El. “He had great love and respect for his parents and for the generation of his parents, for the early world in which he grew up in Baltimore, and he often spoke of this world with great feeling and nostalgia.
“I think his father’s deep piety, as well as openness to the world around him, influenced Arthur immensely,” he says.
Hertzberg was an early and outspoken dove on Israeli politics. After the 1967 Six-Day War, for example, he ruffled some feathers in the Jewish community by calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Still, his stances on issues of politics often were unpredictable. When he was in the company of doves, he took hawkish positions, those who knew him say, but in the company of hawks he took dovish stances.
“He always presented contrary views with intellectual arguments to back them up,” says Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress’ Policy Council. “You had no choice but to reassess your views after you heard his brilliant presentations.
“But you weren’t forced to agree with him entirely,” continues Singer, who co-taught a class on Zionism with Hertzberg at Brooklyn College in the 1970s. “He always went one step further than the public was ready for. And that’s frequently the job of the intellectual and the thinker.”
Twersky — at whose 1985 wedding Hertzberg officiated — said he was first impressed by the rabbi’s views on Zionism.
“The most important thing he ever wrote, in my humble opinion, was the incredible introductory essay to the ‘Zionist Idea,’ which many of my peers feasted on to learn rival Zionist theories,” Twersky said. “The essay was brilliant and insightful.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.