|THE JEWISH LISTS:
Top Chicago Rabbis of the 20th Century
RABBI ABRAHAM ABRAMOWITZ
Some say there has never been another Jewish neighborhood like Chicago's Albany Park.
If that's the case, there may never have been another Chicago rabbi like Abraham Elijah Abramowitz.
For more than 30 years, from the 1930s to the '60s, he presided over the Albany Park Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest and best-known synagogues in the city. And, by extension, he also presided over the Jewish community of Albany Park, where Jews from more than 15 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues, from organizations ranging from the American Jewish Congress to the International Workers of the World, mingled as the bells from nearby North Park College-whose founders came from Sweden-would ring in Shabbat each week by playing "Sholem Aleichem."
Abramowitz himself was born in 1892 in Palestine, the descendent of a long line of rabbis. He came to the United States in 1914 and received his rabbinic ordination here, then returned to his native country for further study. He served as national director of the Jewish National Fund and Karen Kayemet L'Israel, JNF's parent organization in Israel, and also worked a stint as an organizer and scheduler of activities for Chaim Weizmann, who would later become the first president of Israel.
By the time Abramowitz arrived in Chicago in 1922, he had served congregations in Fort Worth, Texas and Shreveport, La., and had been the editor of two newspapers, the Jewish Monitor and Jewish Champion. In Chicago, he served as director of the Midwest Region of the Zionist Organization of America and of the Palestine Foundation Fund before taking on rabbinical duties at Albany Park Hebrew Congregation.
That synagogue had been founded as an Orthodox institution in 1923, but later joined the Conservative Movement. Abramowitz also belonged to that movement. By 1950, when the Jewish population of Albany Park reached its peak, the synagogue had more than 2,000 members, with 600 children in its Hebrew school.
"There were 1,400 seats there, and he would pack the shul," said Rabbi Ephraim Prombaum, Abramowitz's friend, colleague and successor at the synagogue when he retired.
Prombaum describes his mentor as "a very unusual, brilliant man and a great orator. He was personally very charming, very sharp and learned. He could be nice and informal, but he also had great dignity. He got to people. There were great names around in those days, and he impressed people as the quintessential modern Conservative rabbi. He played a big role in the religious life of Chicago. He was greatly admired. Although for some people he wasn't frum (observant) enough," said Prombaum, adding, "A man who doesn't have critics is not great."
Describing Jewish life in the heyday of Albany Park, Prombaum said, "You couldn't walk through the streets without getting into a debate. There were all kinds of Jews-Laborites, Workman's Circle. They came from Europe burning with zeal for their cause. They were fiery. It's empty and boring today by comparison. To hold your own in those days you had to be a real leader." Abramowitz, he said, fit that description perfectly and could debate, argue-and charm-Jews of all persuasions.
Perhaps that was also the clue to his success as a fund-raiser. "At the beginning of the State of Israel and for the next 20 years, there was a great drive to put it on its feet," Prombaum recalls. Rabbi Abramowitz, he said, was "in the forefront of the movement, fashioning the roots of Israel." He took a very active role with Israel Bonds and was one of its top fund-raisers.
Mordecai Simon, a Conservative rabbi and former executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, knew Abramowitz in his later years and describes him as "a very pleasant person, extremely learned in Jewish traditions, very friendly. People really looked up to him. He was a grandfatherly figure with white hair, that sort of personality. He had a wonderful reputation not only in the Conservative movement but in the Orthodox community, too."
As Abramowitz was nearing retirement age, a Jewish exodus out of Albany Park was getting under way. The move into West Rogers Park and the North Shore suburbs accelerated during the 1960s. The Albany Park Hebrew Congregation continued on under Rabbi Prombaum for several years after Abramowitz's retirement, ultimately merging with Congregation Shaare Tikvah in West Rogers Park.
Abramowitz, Prombaum said, moved to Chicago's Gold Coast area but continued to teach Talmud at his old congregation and homiletics at Hebrew Theological College in Skokie. And until his death in 1981, at age 89, he continued to receive visitors and hold court among those who saw him as the ultimate rabbi of one of the most fruitful and creative periods of Chicago Jewish life.
RABBI BERNARD FELSENTHAL
Read from the works of Bernard Felsenthal, Chicago's first Reform rabbi, and except for the archaic turns of language, you'd swear the writer lived at least a century later than he did.
Although Felsenthal was born in 1822 and died in 1908, his ideas-from espousing pluralism in the Jewish community to passionately defending the notion of a Jewish state-seem surprisingly modern.
He was one of the founders of the Reform Movement in America and went on to help found Sinai Congregation, which became one of the largest and most distinguished Reform temples in the Midwest. He also served as its first rabbi.
Felsenthal is remembered as a prolific writer, producing treatises on a wide array of Jewish subjects. As an octogenarian, he became one of the American Jewish world's staunchest defenders of Zionism. His biographers uniformly describe him as a gentle, scholarly soul to whom books and learning-and teaching his fellow Jews-meant the world.
He didn't set out to become a rabbi at all. His original ambition was to be a civil servant in his native province of Bavaria, according to Rabbi Alex J. Goldman, who writes about him extensively in his book "Giants of Faith." Nevertheless, Felsenthal began studying Judaism early in life and had amassed a vast store of learning by the time he went to Munich to attend college, where he majored in mathematics. But when he tried to enter the civil service, he discovered that, as a Jew, there was no place for him there. That experience, by all accounts, affected him deeply.
He decided then to become a teacher instead, and taught Hebrew language and literature in his native village until 1854, when, seeking more freedom and greater opportunities, he immigrated to the United States along with other members of his family.
It was in his first rabbinical post, in the small community of Madison, Ind., that Felsenthal first showed his desire to see radical changes in the brand of Judaism practiced in America, writes H.L. Meites in his landmark 1924 volume, "History of the Jews of Chicago." In 1856, Meites writes, the newcomer addressed his congregants and suggested that numerous changes be made in Shabbat services, prompting an immediate outcry.
Typical was the father of a child that Felsenthal tutored, who exclaimed, "What! A man with such notions expects to read prayers for us on Rosh Hashanah? Such a person wants to teach our children Judaism?"
He found a more ready audience for his ideas in Chicago, a city of 80,000 to which he moved in 1858. By this time, he had published articles in a number of journals, such as Isaac Mayer Wise's Israelite and David Einhorn's Sinai, and was beginning to be considered a leader in the fledgling Reform Movement.
It was a movement that had started in Germany in the first decades of the century and was gradually making its way to America. Felsenthal, along with a few others, gave it a giant push in 1859 when they founded the Judischer Reformverein (Jewish Reform Society). While working as a bank clerk, Felsenthal wrote the young movement's seminal statement of ideas in a pamphlet called "Kol Kore Bamidbar" ("A Voice Calling in the Wilderness").
In it, he called for a regeneration of religious life adapted to the customs of the New World, stressing the right of each individual to search for truth in his or her own fashion. Unlike later Reform leaders, he recommended the use of Hebrew in synagogue services. But he also propounded statements that, by his own admission, some would consider heresy, such as "The Bible is not the source of Judaism! ... the kernel of Judaism is natural religion in the soul of man."
The pamphlet stirred excitement and debate among Chicago Jews. In 1861, the results of the new movement became tangible when Felsenthal and others in the Reformverein founded the Sinai Reform Congregation, first located in a former church on Monroe Street just west of Clark. With some reluctance, Felsenthal became its first spiritual leader.
The new temple's innovations, according to historian Irving Cutler in his book "The Jews of Chicago," included a more westernized prayer book; the use of an organ and a choir during services; more use of English in services; and, contrary to tradition, no head coverings in the synagogue.
Felsenthal served as rabbi for just three years, resigning in 1864 when the congregation refused to renew his contract for more than one year at a time, as was then customary for rabbis. Shortly afterwards, with new neighborhoods developing on Chicago's growing West Side, he became the spiritual leader of a new temple, Zion Congregation. He served there for 23 years until his retirement in 1886. That congregation would later evolve into today's Oak Park Temple B'nai Abraham Zion.
As one of the acknowledged leaders of Reform Judaism in America, Felsenthal continued to espouse new and, to some, radical ideas. He championed interfaith efforts between Christians and Jews and continued to do so even after an invitation to take part in the dedication of a new Unitarian church was withdrawn because some members refused to countenance a Jew speaking from the pulpit. He accepted that slight in a "friendly and understanding spirit," according to one biographer, which seemed to be the way he conducted all his life's business.
Felsenthal also spoke out strongly against an attempt by a group of Chicagoans to reintroduce Bible reading into public schools, calling it "an inexcusable, an undemocratic, an un-American tyrannizing of the minority." He spoke out again and again against slavery, which he called "the most shameful institution on earth." And when he discovered, during the Civil War, that field chaplains could only be "ordained ministers of some Christian denomination," he worked to bring the issue to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. The president, discovering the inequity, immediately struck the word "Christian" and so cleared the way for the appointment of the first Jewish chaplains.
Beginning in 1897, when he was in his late 70s, Felsenthal embraced a new cause: Zionism. At the inception of the Zionist movement, he became one its leading spokespersons in America, incurring the wrath of most other Reform rabbis, since the movement then was strongly anti-Zionist.
But Felsenthal, proudly declaring himself the first non-Polish American Jewish leader to embrace the cause, continued to write pro-Zionist articles and to join the leading Zionist organizations. The "aged yet youthful master," as his disciples called him, continued to work vigorously for this cause, attending meetings and speaking at Zionist conferences until his death in 1908 at age 86 -- the model of a modern rabbi to the end.
RABBI SOLOMON GOLDMAN
"Renaissance man"-a cliche, applied casually to anyone with an interest in a number of areas.
Only in the case of Rabbi Solomon Goldman, it happens to be more than a cliche. It happens to be the truth.
Goldman was a Zionist leader, rabbi of Chicago's Anshe Emet Congregation for nearly 25 years, a leader in the Conservative Movement, a scholar, translator, communal leader, patron of up-and-coming writers, author, innovator (he organized the first modern Jewish day school in Chicago) and an outstanding orator. Stephen S. Wise, Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein were among his friends, yet he wasn't above organizing and participating in a children's Purim carnival at his synagogue.
Rabbi Elliott Gertel of Chicago's Congregation Rodfei Zedek calls him "the most towering intellectual personality in American Judaism in his time.
"There was nobody else who came close," he said.
This highly respected Jewish leader was born in 1893 in Russia, from a line of rabbis going back 10 generations on his mother's side, according to his daughter, Gayola Epstein. He came to the United States before he was 10 years old.
Goldman's destiny and that of the Chicago Jewish community collided early in 1929. The anonymous authors of a history of Anshe Emet Synagogue believed that it was, indeed, destiny. They wrote, "There is a traditional belief that, in times of great crisis or distress, Providence provides a leader. The dark month of October 1929 brought us such a spiritual leader."
As Gayola Epstein tells it, in 1929 Goldman was serving as rabbi of the Cleveland Jewish Center. Three leaders of Anshe Emet-then a struggling congregation with only 90 members-had heard great things about him and were determined to bring him to Chicago to be their rabbi. They visited Cleveland and offered the young Goldman a salary of $18,000 a year-"That was a VERY large salary in 1929," Epstein said.
"He came to Anshe Emet that year for the High Holidays," she related. "The next month, October 1929, was the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, and nobody had the $18,000 to pay him."
But this story has a happy ending. Goldman stayed at Anshe Emet, working without a salary, until economic times improved; eventually, he was able to collect his full pay.
His achievements at the synagogue were extraordinary. By the time he retired, membership was at 2,000. "There would be 1,000-1,500 people every week at Friday night services," Rabbi Gertel relates, "and if you didn't get there an hour ahead of time, you didn't get in."
But numbers are far from the whole story. Goldman's innovations at the synagogue included adult education classes in Hebrew, Bible, contemporary Jewish issues, and more; a synagogue bulletin; communal celebrations of holidays such as Purim and Passover, with the congregation's first community seder making its appearance; and the production of Jewish-themed plays such as "The Dybbuk."
He also hired two synagogue employees who would become legendary in their fields, Jewish educator Ben Aronin and Cantor Moses Silverman. Before his first year was over, 100 new members had joined the synagogue and its Sunday and Hebrew School registration had increased by 250 percent.
But Goldman's influence was wider than the walls of his synagogue. In 1938, he was chosen to succeed Rabbi Stephen S. Wise as president of the Zionist Organization of America, the first non-New Yorker to hold that position. That made him the leader of the Zionist movement in the United States. This meant constant hard work, travel and speaking engagements to help raise enthusiasm and funds for the coming Jewish state.
Five years before, in 1933, Goldman had shown the public another side of his talent. He wrote a production called "The Romance of the People" that was produced during "Jewish Day" at Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair. With the help of a cast of 6,000 Jewish singers, dancers and actors, it depicted the highlights of Jewish history. More than 125,000 spectators filled Soldier Field to see it and to hear the day's guest speaker, Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel's first president.
Even less well known than Goldman's talent as a playwright was his interest in writing and his desire to help struggling authors. He greatly appreciated English and American poetry, his daughter said, and was as knowledgeable about it as he was about Torah and Talmud.
Gertel recalls that the rabbi "personally sponsored many Yiddish, Hebrew and German writers. He gave them stipends before there were such a thing as grants. He thought that was a very important thing.
"He would bring writers to his congregation on Friday nights and introduce them to the congregants, telling them that they should know about the writers' contributions," Gertel said.
Gayola Epstein recalls her father as "a man of great personality and charm, with a great stage presence, and at the same time, very scholarly."
She also recalls how busy he always was and how torn he felt between his professional duties and family matters.
"He was a very warm father, he just didn't have a lot of time," she said. My sister and I used to say we liked daddy best in the summer, because he had more time then and would take us to buy ice cream, and we would go on vacations," she said. "But he was always very devoted to our intellectual development. For Chanukah, I always got books from all over the world." When Epstein went to college, at the University of Chicago, "he was very interested in the courses I took, that I take courses with professors he knew."
Goldman's own scholarship was much admired. He wrote numerous books on the Bible and Talmud, plus essays on Jewish topics and translations of Hebrew and Yiddish novels. Gertel said his Bible studies are unequaled even today.
No doubt Goldman would have gone on to even grater achievement, but he died suddenly in May, 1953, when he was just 59 years old. Shortly afterwards, Anshe Emet established the Solomon Goldman Memorial Foundation, designed to publish all of his writings. Sponsors and board members included Albert Einstein, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Golda Meir. One final project that was close to his heart-a synagogue auditorium seating 2,700 -- had been completed just before his death. The congregation voted unanimously to name it the Solomon Goldman Auditorium.
RABBI TZVI HIRSCH MEISELS
When you know one thing about Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels, you know, in a sense, everything about him.
That one thing is this: When Rabbi Meisels was a prisoner in Auschwitz, where many in his family, including his wife, were killed, he somehow got hold of a shofar and, on Rosh Hashanah, blew it openly and publicly. If the Nazis had seen or heard him, it would have meant instant death, and he couldn't help but be aware of that fact. Yet to help his fellow Jews celebrate their Judaism, even in a place like Auschwitz, he didn't hesitate to place his own life at risk.
That was the kind of person he was all his life, say those who know him.
Meisels, a respected Chasidic rabbi and scholar from Poland who was known as the Veitzener Rav, came to Chicago in the middle 1940s along with three of his children, the only members of his family who survived the Holocaust. He established himself on the fast-growing West Side and quickly began to build Chicago's Orthodox community after the model of the one he had left in Europe.
He founded Congregation Shearis Yisroel, a shtiebel reminiscent of the ones in Eastern Europe. (A shtiebel is a small space, usually in a home, that serves most of the functions of a synagogue.) When Jews began to leave the West Side, he moved the shtiebel to Albany Park, the next site of Jewish settlement.
He also started a kosher mikvah, since Chicago didn't have one, and, as a mohel, performed the britot for most of the Jewish families in the area. He married again, to the daughter of a well-known Rumanian rabbi, and eventually had eight children. And without trying, he found other Jews seeking him out.
"People gathered around him, people from Europe," said Rabbi William Rosenblum, a close friend and colleague of Rabbi Meisels and the founder of the original Rosenblum's book store. "People with halachic questions (questions of Jewish law) all came to him. That was his specialty."
Rosenblum, whose family came from an area about 100 miles away from where Meisels had lived, said he had heard about the Rav in Europe, where he was called "the Genius" for his encyclopedic knowledge of halachah.
But, he stressed, Rabbi Meisels was no aloof, unapproachable intellectual. Just the opposite. "When anybody needed to talk to him, there was no limit (on his time)," said Rosenblum. "His house was never locked, he was up till 2-3 o'clock in the morning, sitting and learning and helping people out. He would make 50 calls just to do a favor for someone."
Jews from Europe, the West Side's massive number of immigrants, were especially attracted to the rabbi because, said Rosenblum, "he was a real rabbi of the European type. You don't see it any more now. I knew from Europe how a rabbi should look, and he was the picture of how a rabbi should look. Money didn't mean anything to him. He wasn't a money man, he was a scholar."
That's also how Feige Unger remembers her father. She was just 11 when he died 25 years ago, but she recalls him as "an extremely warm, caring person. Most people just say of him, 'He was our father.' He took a genuine interest in the people who came from Europe, people without families. He would take care of them basically. If they came to ask a question, he would put himself completely at their disposal."
Today her husband, Rabbi Moshe Unger, runs Chicago's Yeshivas Shearis Yisroel/Veitzener Cheder, an Orthodox elementary school for boys named in honor of Rabbi Meisels, as well as Congregation Shearis Yisroel, Rabbi Meisel's shtiebel, now located in West Rogers Park. Another Orthodox day school, Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi, is also named for Rabbi Meisels.
Feige Unger also remembers her father's great sense of compassion. "Many people think, a Chasidic rabbi, that is someone who keeps himself aloof, won't look at women, won't care about anyone. He wasn't like that," she said. "He was ultra-ultra Chasidic and Orthodox, but he knew how to keep a perfect balance so others around him would always feel wanted."
When he performed a bris, for instance, Unger said, he would make a special effort to see that the baby's mother was doing well, and would even "train the father how to help, to change the baby's diapers so the mother could get some rest at night."
He had a great sensitivity to people, she said: "If he was in a house for one reason, if he noticed another problem going on, he would address it in a way that people wouldn't feel hurt."
Even in Chicago's Orthodox community of today, "people don't believe it is 25 years (since he died)," Unger said. "For them it's like two years. He was literally their everything-their father, mother, mentor. Whatever they needed, he would help with, financially, physically, spiritually. He was there for everything, he would talk to doctors, go places, take care of situations."
Unger surmises that her father's extraordinary leadership abilities came to full flowering in Auschwitz, where, she says, there are many stories of the sacrifices he made on behalf of his fellow Jews. In fact, he wrote a book about his experiences, but it has never been translated from the Hebrew.
One story, though, is well known. The Nazis had decided that they would murder exactly1,400 Jewish teenage boys to perversely mark some occasion and were keeping them under a heavy guard. One boy's father approached Rabbi Meisels and told him he had enough valuables to bribe the guards and win his son's release. But he knew that if he did, another Jewish boy would be murdered in his son's place. He asked the rabbi what was the right thing to do under Jewish law.
Rabbi Meisels agonized over the father's question. He told him he didn't feel he could approve the request, since it would only mean the death of another Jewish boy. But he also felt he couldn't play G-d. He simply told the father that he had no answer to give.
The father reasoned that, since the rabbi did not tell him he was allowed to ransom his son, this was a sign that the action was not permitted. "Were it permitted, you surely would have answered me that it is permitted," the father told Rabbi Meisels. "So I will do nothing to ransom him, for so the Torah has commanded."
The rabbi had refused to play G-d, yet he had led another Jew to a powerful understanding: If a father must sacrifice his own son rather than cause the death of another Jew, it must be done. Rabbi Meisels had shown another how precious each Jewish life is-which is no less than what he did, in one way or another, every day of his life.
RABBI DAVID POLISH
Newcomers to Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston often ask what the "Free" stands for.
Thereby hangs a tale.
It's the story of Rabbi David Polish, the founder of the synagogue and a seminal figure in contemporary Reform Judaism.
Polish (pronounced like the nail enamel, not the country) is remembered-and, in many quarters, revered-as the Reform leader who first turned the movement toward Zionism, where it remains firmly entrenched today.
In the early days of the movement, most Reform rabbis were indifferent to, or, more likely, hostile towards Israel and the Zionist movement.
Polish, however, grew up in Cleveland in a Zionist family and atmosphere and never strayed from those roots, according to his widow, Aviva Polish of Evanston.
Maintaining that stance "was difficult for him," she said. "When he was ordained, Hebrew Union College wouldn't place him."
"He was told when he was ordained that because of his outspoken Zionism, he would never find employment," said his son, Rabbi Daniel Polish. He is the rabbi of Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
After losing one job because of his views, in 1950, Polish founded Beth Emet The Free Synagogue. It was named partly in tribute to one of his mentors, Rabbi Stephen W. Wise, who had established The Free Synagogue in New York City, and partly because "the pulpit was free-the rabbi could talk about whatever he wanted to without fear of being dictated to by the lay leaders," as Daniel Polish put it.
"This was a place where the truth could be spoken," said Rabbi Peter Knobel, the current rabbi of Beth Emet. "Now that is taken for granted in Reform and Conservative congregations, but here it is enshrined in our founding principles. It's one of the few congregations in the country where that is built into the by-laws."
In the end, of course, Reform Judaism caught up to Rabbi Polish and embraced Zionism and Israel. "He built a two-way bridge," Daniel Polish said. "He helped the Reform Movement become a Zionist movement, and he also helped bring an awareness of American Reform Jewry to intellectuals and political leaders in Israel."
One of his efforts, a series of dialogues between Reform rabbis and the kibbutz movement in Israel, resulted in the establishment of Kibbutz Yahel, a liberal religious kibbutz in the Negev. He was also a founder of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and author of its Statement of Principles.
Never "a one-issue person," as Aviva Polish put it, Polish also served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He was a founder of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and its first president; was the author of nine books; and taught at Hebrew Union College of Los Angeles and at Northwestern University, where he helped establish the Philip and Ethel Klutznick Chair of Jewish Civilization.
As he became known as a leader in the Reform Movement, he traveled extensively both nationally and internationally. Once a colleague asked what his congregants thought of the fact that he traveled so much, Rabbi Knobel relates. Polish's answer: "They would like to fire me, but they can't find me."
"He would tell this story on himself," Knobel said. "Actually, he paid attention to his congregation totally and built a great congregation."
Besides brining Reform Judaism into the Zionist fold, Polish also contributed greatly to the so-called neo-traditional movement, in which Reform Jews recovered many traditions and customs that an earlier, Reform tradition had discarded. "Very early on, he spoke about Reform Judaism in a different idiom than was prevalent in his time," Daniel Polish said. "He helped sensitize the Reform Movement to the riches of Jewish tradition."
For such a well-known leader, Polish was a rather retiring man by nature, his wife said. "He wasn't the slap-you-on-the-back, kissy-kissy kind of rabbi. He was a quiet person, but those who really got to know him, loved him," she said. "He influenced so many young people, especially.
"He once said, 'I don't know if I've influenced anybody.' I said, 'You have!' After he died, I was so sorry he couldn't read the letters we got from all the young people."
His son says he "was not a political person in any sense of the word. He would not put his finger up to find out which way the wind was going. He was a person of absolute commitment and sincerity and was constitutionally incapable of compromising on his principles. Regardless of the consequences, he acted on what he believed was right." His vision of social justice led him to the South to march with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggle.
Daniel Polish says his father "inspired bunches of people to become rabbis. Beth Emet is the (former) home of a disproportionate number of Reform rabbis." But though he may have inspired his son to follow in his footsteps, he never implied that the path was an easy one.
"He was always very candid about the whole experience that led to the founding of Beth Emet, and how difficult it was," Daniel Polish said. "He didn't hide that. He didn't paint a pastel picture."
"He was made of whole cloth," his son added. "At home, he was the same as when you saw him in public. It wasn't a role he put on when he went out the door."
"I know this sounds like a cliche, but he was a rabbi's rabbi," said Aviva Polish, adding that her husband was considered a towering intellect by his colleagues. "They all came to him for help and advice. He always published his holiday sermons, and before the holidays, rabbis would call from all over the country to ask if they could get a copy of last year's sermons."
And although there were always many demands put on him, he never failed to devote time to his two children and five grandchildren, she said. "He was a great influence on them. They are all good Jews and all very interested in Israel." Could a rabbi ask for any more than that?
RABBI RALPH SIMON
There was a standing joke at Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood: Old-timers would tell newcomers that they would soon be "Simonized."
What did it mean? On one level, simply to be brought into the orbit of Rabbi Ralph Simon, who led the congregation for an amazing 44 years, from 1943 to 1987.
But there was more. Simon, by all accounts, had the ability to relate in a personal, compassionate way to everyone, Jew or non-Jew, Reform, Orthodox or, like himself, Conservative. To come under his beneficent spell was to be "Simonized."
Simon's achievements-founding the first Camp Ramah, building Rodfei Zedek into one of the leading Conservative congregations in the country-are memorable. But those who knew him well speak of him in much more visceral terms-of his ability to communicate, organize and transmit an aura of caring to everyone whose life touched his.
"A lot of rabbis built congregations and schools, but I think he, more than anyone else, succeeded in finding a special kind of camaraderie among his congregants, a closeness, a way to bring people together," said Rabbi Elliott Gertel, the current spiritual leader of the congregation, who knew Simon well during the years when the older man served as rabbi emeritus.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, who served at Rodfei Zedek with Simon from 1976 to 1988 and is now at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, put it this way: "He was able to be the rabbi of his own congregation and, at the same time, the rabbi to whom many people in the community looked. He had a great impact on the community and at the same time was very involved in his own congregation." His motto, Kurtz and others said, was "No synagogue is an island."
His more tangible achievements were striking as well. A Newark, N.J. native, he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1931 and quickly became a power within the Conservative Movement. He served as national president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, the rabbinical arm of the movement, from 1968 to 1970. Among many other leadership positions, he served as general chairman of the Jewish United Fund campaign and of Israel Bonds and as president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the Hyde Park-Kenwood Interfaith Council.
By all accounts, he also possessed a talent for inspiring others to community service. "He was very interested in organizing people to do noble things," Gertel said.
One of his major achievements was founding the original Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, which he saw as a continuation of his efforts to bring members of the Jewish community together and create communication among them.
During his long tenure at Rodfei Zedek, Simon was known not only as a spirited and caring leader, but as a powerful orator. One of his friends' favorite stories involves a legendary speech he gave just after the Six-Day War broke out in 1967. As Rabbi Mordecai Simon, former executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis (and no relation to Ralph Simon), tells it: "There was a big, spontaneous gathering in the middle of the day at the Standard Club, a tremendous crowd, and everyone was asking 'What can we do?' He got up and spoke, moving and motivating the crowd, and after that everyone said, 'Let's go. You can count on us!'"
That speech "is still legendary," said Rabbi Kurtz, who added that Simon "was also a master storyteller. He had stories about everything, and in terms of jokes and stories he could keep up with any person, student, politician, clergy or congregant."
His sermons were especially well-regarded by congregants and were published by the synagogue in 1985 in a book titled "Challenges and Responses."
Among those he inspired to follow in his footsteps in the rabbinate were his son, Rabbi Matthew Simon, and Rabbi Wayne Dosick, the author of several books including "Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition and Practice." Dosick, who grew up at Rodfei Zedek, gave a moving tribute at a memorial service for his mentor.
Simon's social conscience was strong-and was tested many times during his tenure at Rodfei Zedek, especially during the 1950s and '60s, with the Hyde Park community undergoing years of turmoil and "white flight." Joining together with Reform leaders as well as Christian clergy, Simon "sought to stabilize the community," Rabbi Gertel said. "All the clergy were very important in achieving (stability and racial harmony), and Simon especially so."
"When so many (Jews) moved from Hyde Park to South Shore, Rabbi Simon kept Rodfei Zedek as a strong anchor in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic transitional neighborhood," Rabbi Dosick remembers. He also kept congregants who had moved out of the neighborhood coming back: "He drew us all back ... not because we liked the drive, not because we could not have attended any one of the five or seven synagogues we passed on the way back to Hyde Park, but because he drew us there. No longer was (Rodfei Zedek) a 'neighborhood shul,' but a focal point that beckoned Jews from all over the city and suburbs," Dosick said.
Gertel added that it was during Simon's term as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, in 1968, that that body invited Martin Luther King Jr., still considered controversial by some, to speak.
Simon's name was also linked to that of another towering figure of the era, theologian, author and scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rodfei Zedek congregants endowed a chair, held by Heschel, in Simon's name at the rabbinical seminary. Beyond this formal link, the two men were friends, and Heschel would sometimes appear at synagogue functions, according to Gertel.
Simon formally retired from the synagogue in 1987, but true to form, he didn't curtail his rabbinical functions. He served for several years as rabbi emeritus, until he and his wife, Kelsey, moved to Palm Springs, Calif., in the early '90s. There he continued to teach Talmud classes and deliver an occasional sermon at Temple Isaiah.
Just before Simon's death in April, 1996 at the age of 89, Dosick related, "during the few final days, the two Rabbis Simon-father and son-had read and studied together the entire Book of Psalms.
"He was forever teaching; he was forever learning."
RABBI AARON SOLOVEICHIK
One of Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik's favorite sayings, first uttered by the sage Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, is "Nothing stands in the way of your will."
It's an aphorism that could be applied to his own life as well.
The scion of a distinguished family of Torah scholars, Rabbi Soloveichik has made a name for himself in his own right and is widely regarded as the leading authority on Jewish law in the United States, if not the world.
Unlike most Talmudic scholars, he earned a law degree and used the knowledge he gained to "help out Jews who were in trouble," according to his son, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik.
Today, though he is past 80 and has suffered a stroke, he still flies to New York every week to teach classes in Talmud at Yeshiva University.
In doing so, he is continuing a family tradition that dates back nearly three-quarters of a century. His father, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, joined the faculty of the university's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1929, and at least one member of the family has been a professor of Talmud there since that time.
The Soloveichik dynasty goes back for generations. Aaron Soloveichik's grandfather, Chaim Soloveichik, was known as the Brisker Rav after the town where he lived, Brisk, Lithuania. He was the inventor of an analytic method of Talmud study, which the present Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik describes as "almost like chemistry-you take a certain halachah and break it down into its components."
Aaron Soloveichik arrived in the Unites States from his native Poland in July, 1930 -- just a few months after his bar mitzvah. Because his father had traveled to America ahead of the rest of the family, he had missed the ceremony. So Rabbi Soloveichik had another bar mitzvah celebration in the United States.
Already considered a Talmudic prodigy in Poland and the student of a renowned scholar, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Soloveichik was accepted to New York's Yeshiva University when he was just 13 years old. He first studied Talmud there with his father and, after his death in 1941, with his brother.
In 1940, Aaron Soloveichik earned his bachelor's degree from Yeshiva College and, that same year, received his ordination. Shortly afterwards, he earned a law degree from New York University Law School.
He began his career in New York City, teaching at the yeshiva of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the leading halachic expert of his time, and serving as rabbi of Moriah Synagogue there.
He came to Chicago in 1968 and served for eight years as dean of faculty at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie. In 1974, he founded Yeshivas Brisk, named in honor of his grandfather. The school, now with about 50 students, moved from Albany Park to West Rogers Park and continues to be a vital force in the community, as does its founder.
In 1986, Rabbi Soloveichik returned to the faculty of Yeshiva University's Theological Seminary. Since then he has commuted from Chicago every week to teach three Talmud classes.
Throughout his career, he has written numerous scholarly articles, and is regularly consulted from all corners of the globe on questions of Talmud and Jewish law.
What sort of a man is this intellectual giant? "He is a person who has devoted his life to studying and teaching Torah-a person of high principle," said his son, Moshe Soloveichik. "He is not one who tries to follow trends. Many people look up to him because of that, and many people are also scared of him or angry with him because of that. Some people have a problem with one who does not follow trends."
Soloveichik is dedicated both to his family (which includes six children) and to his students, Moshe said. "He was a very devoted father and a very devoted teacher, and the two roles merged into one for us and for his students," he said. "His students thought of him as a father. There would always be students in the house. They would come and discuss their personal problems with him."
The rabbi took those problems to heart, by all accounts. His son recalls how his father once found out that a woman in the community was very ill and had to be hospitalized, but didn't have enough money. It was Yom Kippur, but her illness was grave and she couldn't wait until the holy day was over. Rabbi Soloveichik walked from synagogue to synagogue to raise the money.
His legal skills served him well in dealing with some questions of Jewish law and financial disputes, his son said, recalling that "a businessman once had certain halachic problems concerning his business. He asked my father to resolve those problems. My father talked to this person's lawyer, and his lawyer later said of Soloveichik, 'That man is no rabbi-he's a lawyer!"
Not surprisingly, his four sons have followed him into the rabbinical and scholarly professions. "It was just automatic that we would follow in his footsteps," Moshe Soloveichik said. "My father believes that a man should 'command his children and his family after him'-that is, show them how to act after he is no longer here. He 'commanded' by personal example. We followed what he preached."
Rabbi Soloveichik suffered a stroke several years ago and gets about with difficulty, his son said. But he continues to teach, both because teaching is so important to him and because he never forgets his belief that "where there is determination, you can accomplish anything."
RABBI JACOB WEINSTEIN
"Reform Judaism had become the religion of the officiants, the rabbi, the reader and the choir. The rabbi and the choir were excellently exercised, but the congregation was passive in the extreme. It was prayed at, preached at, sung at, invoked, blessed and dismissed. ... Reform synagogues built comfortable pews, ushered the members into their seats after a hearty family meal, and then sang them sweetly to sleep."
So wrote Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein in 1951, describing the way he found Kehilath Anshe Maariv (universally known as KAM) when he came there in 1939 as the new rabbi. The historic synagogue had been founded in 1847 in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.
Weinstein, who stayed at KAM until his retirement in 1967, set out to change all that. And he did, becoming known in the process as one of the country's leading social activist spiritual leaders.
Before coming to KAM, Weinstein had not been a congregational rabbi for a number of years. He had been teaching and writing, was one of the founders of New York's New School for Social Research, and had worked with organized labor during a time when unions were potent forces for social change. In fact, in 1930 he was fired from a congregation in San Francisco for supporting a longshoreman's strike.
By the time he came to KAM, he was already known as 'labor's rabbi,' according to Corrine Asher, a longtime congregant and friend of Weinstein. Her late husband Lester, who later became KAM president, was one of Chicago's top labor lawyers and had worked with Weinstein in the National Labor Relations Board before either was affiliated with the temple.
In his new position, Weinstein quickly set out to create what he called a "layman-led congregation," introducing innovations that spread to other synagogues throughout the country. Among them, according to historical material produced for KAM's 150th anniversary, were such new committees as Community Affairs, Public Relations, Youth Service and Young Marrieds. The Religious School committee began an overhaul of that institution and addressed such searching questions as "How much emphasis should be given to Hebrew and Palestine affairs?" and "If we reveal the deep gulf between our ideals and our actual practices of the home, will our children come to look upon us as hypocrites?"
Another highly popular new program, Discussion Group, brought congregation members together after Friday night services to mull over such topics as "Should there be a Jewish Commonwealth?" "Is segregation in harmony with the American way of life"? and "Should Jews seek converts to Judaism?"
In 1942, Weinstein took another historic step. He hired Max Janowski as the temple's music director. For the next 25 years, Janowski, with Weinstein's encouragement, composed original music for the temple that was later played all over the world. He also assembled a large volunteer choir-an innovation for an institution that had for decades paid for choir services from outsiders.
During these years, Weinstein "brought the concept of social activism-that this was, in fact, a religious function-to a congregation that had been rather conservative," Asher said. He urged (some say ordered) his congregants to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940; later, during a General Motors strike, he preached an impassioned sermon exhorting congregants to support the strike out of a sense of responsibility for the nation's workers.
He was recognized as a spellbinding speaker and preacher and his sermons were broadcast nationally on radio.
"His sermons were brilliant," Asher recalled. "They absolutely endeared him to some people, but they frequently angered others." By 1948, she said, a break between the political liberals and conservatives in the congregation was brewing.
In March of that year, the battle broke into the open, and Weinstein was caught up in one of the most public, and most bitter, synagogue schisms in all of Chicago's history. Temple president Max Schrayer and a number of other officers publicly charged that Weinstein was "taking unauthorized vacations," going on too many out-of-town speaking engagements, "undermining" another rabbi at the synagogue, Rabbi Eric Friedland, and generally behaving like a prima donna.
But the apparent root of the conflict was a struggle over whether KAM should stay in Hyde Park, a neighborhood that was beginning to change its racial character. "Max (Schrayer) thought the temple had to move to South Shore because the neighborhood was crumbling. Jacob (Weinstein) thought it was wrong for the temple to indicate that it would not be around black people," Asher said.
Weinstein enlisted powerful friends and allies, including State Rep. Abner Mikva (later a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals and counselor to the President), Alderman Leon Despres and Arthur Goldberg, later to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice-all KAM members. Finally, after months of in-fighting, at the congregation's annual meeting in June, 1948, Weinstein prevailed, with more than 800 members (out of a 900-member congregation) signing a petition to retain Weinstein.
Schrayer and his camp left the temple and formed a new congregation, Beth Am, later to merge with Temple Sholom on the city's North Side.
A decade later, Weinstein was involved in another momentous decision-this time one with implications for the entire city-when he decided to stay with the original Hyde Park KAM instead of moving to the congregation's North Shore extension. That satellite had been launched to serve the growing numbers of Jews moving from Chicago's South Side to its North Shore suburbs.
During this time of neighborhood upheaval, KAM and Weinstein played a vital role in the historic Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, formed to address issues of race and quality of life in the rapidly changing locale. Weinstein spoke all over the city on issues of race and housing, urged Chicago Jews to become involved in efforts to integrate the city, and invited civil rights leaders and activists to speak at the synagogue.
Turning down the offer to move to the North Shore, Weinstein and his supporters believed, sent a powerful message to the community: no "white flight" to the suburbs for these Jews. KAM North Shore eventually became Congregation Solel, while Weinstein stayed on at the original KAM until he retired in 1967.
During the last decade of his rabbinate, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and joined a delegation of anti-Vietnam War spiritual leaders in visiting that country to seek solutions for ending the war. To the end he was, as author Janet Feldstein titled her biography of Weinstein, an "Advocate of the People."
RABBI DAVID WINCHESTER
When Avi Winchester was a child, he was surprised to discover one day that his father, Rabbi David Winchester, spiritual leader of Congregation Nusach Ari in Albany Park, had new stationery printed listing a stranger's name as rabbi of the shul.
What happened? Wasn't his dad the rabbi anymore? Avi Winchester wondered.
It wasn't until much later that he discovered that the man whose name was on the stationery was an immigrant who needed a job in order to stay in the country. So David Winchester "gave" him a job.
He also gave the newcomer his paycheck-but that didn't surprise his family. Winchester routinely gave his paycheck away to people who needed the money more than he did.
When the rabbi died, in 1976, he had a grand total of $3.56 in his bank account, his son relates.
He had opened a bank account for the first time in his life just the year before. He had to: Some of the people who gave him money to help the poor now insisted on paying by check.
Even though he has been dead more than 20 years, Rabbi Winchester remains a legend in the minds and hearts of many in Chicago's Jewish community.
Little has been written about him, though. There's a reason for that. In fact, said his son, "He would have forbidden me from saying anything about him (for this article). He would have said there was nothing to write about, that he wasn't great or special." Avi Winchester agreed to discuss his father because he believes his legacy can inspire others.
But let's not call him Rabbi Winchester. Though he was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College, he refused to use the title himself. If anyone addressed him as "rabbi," according to those who knew him best, he would say, "What do you mean, rabbi? That's not my name." Nor would he use another title he had earned, that of rabbinic judge or dayan. Both designations, he believed, called too much attention to him. As did sitting at the head table at the rare functions he attended. He refused to do that, too.
When he came to call on wealthy and powerful men, heads of corporations, to ask-sometimes to plead-for money to help the poor, he announced himself simply as "Winchester." So here, Winchester he will be.
Who was this man who many call a tzadik (a sage or superhuman, righteous person) and even a saint? We know that he was born in Poland, to a family that was not especially religious, around 1903, and that he came to the United States as a young child.
Hanoch Teller, an author who has a chapter on Winchester in his book, "Hey, Taxi!" writes that, "even in his youth, people noticed that there was something unusual about him. David Winchester, it seems, was incapable of distinguishing between theory and practice .... everything he learned, he applied."
It was, perhaps, this quality that led Winchester to leave Chicago in the late 1920s and travel to a small town in Palestine to study at a legendary institute of learning, the Hebron Yeshiva. It was a fateful decision. In 1929, growing Jewish-Arab friction erupted into what was to become known as the Hebron Massacre. In it, Arabs rioted, destroyed the yeshiva and other Jewish institutions and killed a total of 67 Jews.
Winchester was believed to be among them. He was stabbed 13 times and left for dead, lying in the street. It was only the next day, when members of the Jewish burial society came to collect the bodies, that a doctor noticed a faint spark of life left in him. He was revived, then returned to Chicago and spent 18 months in the hospital recovering.
The massacre, his son believes, "was a turning point in his life. He felt he had survived because he had a mission in life. He believed the world was founded upon chesed (charity, deeds of kindness) and he took it on himself to fulfill that."
Yet there is evidence that Winchester's selfless ways began long before the massacre. In his book, Teller relates that, a year previously, several students from the yeshiva contracted typhoid, a highly contagious and often fatal disease. At great risk to his own life, Winchester crept into the quarantined area to feed and comfort them.
When he recovered from his wounds, he settled in Albany Park, Chicago's poorest Jewish community, and founded Nusach Ari, a small shul and house of study. A learned as well as a compassionate man, he taught Talmud at his alma mater, the Hebrew Theological College, for most of his life.
These are some other things we know about him: He was often seen walking through the streets (he never owned a car) in the depths of winter without a coat. Whenever he had one, he would give it away to someone who was poorer than he.
"We used to say it was a good thing that modesty decreed that he had to wear a shirt and pants, or he would have given his away and gone around naked," his son said.
Before his son's wedding, Winchester's friends decided he must have a coat, and a wealthy man bought him a fine one. On the way to the wedding, he gave it away.
His son relates that the door to the family's small Albany Park apartment was never locked so anyone who needed a place to sleep could find one there.
Winchester often found homeless people on the streets and brought them to the apartment for the night. Whether they were Jews or non-Jews didn't matter. What did was that they needed a warm place to sleep.
A friend who did have a car had a weekly appointment with Winchester. At around 11 p.m., he picked up the rabbi and drove him to a kosher butcher shop that was still open. Winchester emerged carrying many wrapped packages of meat. He then directed the driver to take him to a number of locations. At each one, he got out, walked about a block and surreptitiously left a package of meat on a porch or windowsill. Those who received his largesse never knew who the donor was, and the friend who was driving never knew who the recipients were-that would be too embarrassing to the needy ones.
For most of his life, the shul sent Winchester's paycheck directly to his wife. It was the only way to keep the family-which included Avi and his sister, Rosalyn-from being as destitute as the people he helped. If they gave the paycheck to him, he would immediately give it all away to the poor.
It's not surprising to hear, from his son, that Winchester "never got angry, never lost his temper, never was aggressive. He would let people go ahead of him in line. He would let people get on buses ahead of him. The buses would be filled up and he would let bus after bus pass him by while other people got on.
"He saw the godliness in everyone," said Avi Winchester. That included drug addicts. When Winchester discovered that some Jews belonged to this despised group, he made a special effort to help them, too.
Winchester helped so many people that at his death in 1976, The Jewish Post, a now-defunct Chicago newspaper, ran a story detailing "a new unforeseen problem. Who will take care of the many poor and destitute people that Rabbi Winchester dedicated his life to?" Representatives of the Jewish Federation and the Ark are quoted describing the efforts being made to find and help these unfortunates.
Winchester's death set in motion another extraordinary turn of events. Knowing he was hopelessly in debt because of the money he continually borrowed for his charitable efforts, his family and friends would try to raise enough to pay off all he owed. An announcement was made at his funeral, setting up a contact for anyone who was owed money.
No one ever came forward to collect.
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