60 Years a Rabbi: What I Learned from My Rabbinic Mentors

June 23, 2020Rabbi A. James Rudin

This June marks 60 years since my rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. However, those six decades have not diminished my appreciation of the rabbinic mentors who symbolically escorted me to rabbinical school and upon whose shoulders I stand to this day.

My journey began when I was a 6-year-old student at Temple Rodef Sholom in Pittsburgh during Sukkot 1940. While standing on the building’s front steps, Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, the congregation’s senior rabbi, handed me a bright red apple to commemorate the fall harvest holiday.

I proudly took the rabbi’s gift home, where it was treated as a sacred object, sitting on our mantelpiece as long as nature would allow.

The following year, my father was called to active Army duty and stationed at Fort Belvoir near Alexandria, VA, where we joined Temple Beth-El, the local Reform congregation. But Rabbi Freehof’s influence remained strong in our home, because Rodef Sholom regularly sent us printed texts of his sermons and book reviews.

Even as a youngster, I appreciated his beautifully crafted phrasing, his command of Jewish sources, and how his love of Shakespeare was woven into many of his writings -- and during the darkest days of World War II, Rodef Sholom’s rabbi always ended his sermons with realistic hope. His public book reviews attracted audiences of both Jews and Christians, numbering between 1,500 and 2,000.

Many years later, I visited Rabbi Freehof in his study and reminded him of the gift apple, and he gave me another gift: several old prayer books he had personally restored and rebound, and a Passover Haggadah published in Nazi Germany in the fateful year 1938.

Rabbi Freehof was a superb interpreter of Jewish responsa, offering rabbinic answers to questions that provided guidance about Jewish customs, liturgy, ceremonies, and the adaption of traditional values in the modern world. His mastery of the traditional texts allowed him to shape Reform Judaism to meet changing modern conditions, and he did so by asserting his teachings were “…not governance, but guidance.”

His illustrious career included his serving as a Hebrew Union College professor, and as president of both the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. He died in 1990 at age 98.

Here is the rabbinical legacy that Rabbi Freehof bequeathed to me: Always be meticulous in your preparations for public presentations whether written or oral. Take your audience seriously and never attempt to “wing it.” Offer authentic realistic hope to the Jewish people. And never underestimate the memory power of young children.

Rabbi Hugo Schiff was spiritual leader of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, VA, a congregation founded in 1859 primarily by German Jews who had come to the United States following the unsuccessful 1848 revolution in Europe. Before 1938, Dr. Schiff had been the rabbi of a thousand-member synagogue in Karlsruhe.

In 1938, Rabbi Schiff and his wife Hannah were rescued from Nazi Germany; he had been interned in the Dachau concentration camp near Munich following Kristallnacht. “Dr. Schiff,” as he insisted on being called, had a Ph.D. degree from Erlangen University in Germany; surprisingly, his thesis focused on the American philosopher, essayist, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. During his time in Alexandria, he augmented his rabbinic salary by teaching religion courses at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Schiff was always impeccably dressed, ultra serious, and often humorless. He had a laser-like intellect and revered academic study, especially philosophy and biblical texts. Like Rabbi Freehof, he had been a military chaplain in WWI, but on the opposite side of the barricades.

My mischievous classmates and I were sometimes mean to our intimidating rabbi. During one class, as we chattered loudly, he exploded in anger and shouted, “Children, stop smooching!” Of course, he'd meant, “Stop schmoozing!” We burst out in laughter.

Although he officiated at my bar mitzvah, I did not fully appreciate Rabbi Schiff until much later during my first year at Wesleyan University. I was in an honors “Great Books” class, and among our readings were selections from Emerson and what my professor termed “The Old Testament.” Because my family attended hundreds of Sabbath services during the 1940s, I heard our rabbi deliver many brilliant sermons about the Hebrew Bible and, of course, his beloved Emerson.

Hearing my Wesleyan professor’s lectures on similar subjects, I quickly recognized that Dr.Schiff’s extraordinary biblical and philosophical teachings were far superior to what I was learning in college. When I later told him about this, Dr. Schiff was pleased and urged me to become a rabbi. Indeed, he played a key role in my choosing to go to Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Dr. Hugo Schiff was the personification of a dynamic and intellectually rich Jewish community that was brutally destroyed during the Holocaust. He died in 1986 at the age of 93.

Both of my mentors were immigrants. Solomon Freehof was born in London and came to Baltimore in 1903 at the age of eleven. He elevated his rich English vocabulary with an eloquent speaking voice; Hugo Schiff personified the proud German Jewish scholarly tradition, but as a displaced refugee with a heavy foreign accent, he had a harder time finding acceptance and appreciation in his new land.

The other thing my two brilliant mentors had in common was their scholarly mastery of Jewish texts and tradition, combined with a deep appreciation of classic literature, attributes that have informed my 60 years as a rabbi.

Tell us in the comments below: Who do you count among your mentors?

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