No Silver Platter
By its mere existence Judaism is a never silent protest against the assumption of the multitude that force is superior to truth.
-Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism
Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck was one of the leading Reform rabbis in interwar Germany. He refused offers of emigration during the Nazi period, so as not to leave his "flock." He survived Theresienstadt and after the war became a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, one of his students, Rabbi Max Elk, emigrated to Israel in the late 30s and started a school in Haifa, which, after the war, became the Leo Baeck School. Recently I had occasion to walk past 47 Hillel Street, in Haifa, where I attended the Leo Baeck high school as an EIE (Eisendrath International Exchange) exchange student in 1962. The graceful stone building (built as an apartment building) is boarded up and overgrown. It brought back nostalgic memories of that adventure, of Dr. Elk and the cast of colorful old-world characters who made up the faculty, of the unruly students and the crowded classrooms.
But there was more nostalgia in an event I attended just a few weeks ago, at Leo Baeck's impressive, spacious, gleaming campus in the French Carmel neighborhood. The reason I had participated in EIE was that when I was 14, a freshly minted young rabbi with strong Zionist proclivities became the assistant in the large, classical Reform temple to which we belonged. My parents soon "adopted" the young family, and I became a devoted disciple of Rabbi Robert Samuels, who encouraged me to go on EIE, who gave me private Hebrew lessons as part of my preparation - and who made Aliyah with his family just as I returned from Haifa. Starting out as a teacher at Leo Baeck, struggling to bring progressive pedagogy to Dr. Elk's Germanic institution, he stuck it out, ultimately succeeding Dr. Elk as headmaster, and relentlessly pursuing a vision of Leo Baeck School as a center for formal and informal education that would dominate the cultural landscape of Haifa and the area and that would serve as a beacon of Reform values such as tikkun olam and a loving yet critical approach to tradition.
The event was an 80th birthday celebration for Rabbi Samuels, looking back on a remarkable career of rabbinic leadership for social change. Many, if not most, of us who are involved in liberal Judaism in Israel spend a lot of time complaining about Orthodox domination, about secular opposition, about Kafkaesque bureaucracy, about scant resources. Bob simply brought his resources of intelligence, charisma, enthusiasm, and commitment to bear in order to knock down, step over, or coopt all those obstacles. The results are there for all to see - and the impact on individuals and on all the individuals influenced by those individuals - is incalculable.
Undoubtedly, Bob Samuels is an unusually talented teacher and dynamic leader. Few of us could have done what he has accomplished, and the event in his honor was an occasion to contemplate the special qualities of this remarkable rabbi - and the great impact of his rabbinate on Israeli society. However, it seems to me there is a message in his story, for all of us: It would be nice if the Messiah would come, or at least some sympathetic benevolent despot. However, Israel is a democracy, so the only way we can change it to conform more closely to our vision is by the slow, messy, frustrating processes of education, persuasion, campaigning, fundraising, coalition-building, compromising, institution-building - all the while keeping our eye on the ball (did I mention that Bob Samuels takes baseball very seriously?). Bob did that for over 50 years, and changed Israel. There is no silver platter. All we can do is stop complaining and get to work.