Harold M. Schulweis, an influential rabbi and theologian who focused his sermons, books and social activism on connecting the Jewish community with the wider world — and vice versa — died on Dec. 18 at his home in Reseda, Calif. He was 89.
The cause was heart disease, said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, who succeeded Rabbi Schulweis as the leader of the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, Calif.
A public intellectual as well as an effective pulpit speaker, Rabbi Schulweis spent his long career as a religious leader making Judaism more approachable to both non-Jews and recalcitrant Jews, and encouraging Jews to live beyond a narrow preoccupation with their faith.
His social activism stretched across several decades. Spurred by chance encounters in the 1960s with an unheralded hotel janitor in San Francisco who had rescued Jews in Nazi Germany, and with a math instructor in Berkeley who shared the story of his family’s rescue by an uncelebrated family of German Christians, Rabbi Schulweis started what he called the Institute for the Righteous — known, since 1986, as the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous — which is devoted to locating and supporting Christians who came to the aide of Jews during the Holocaust.
In the mid-1980s he helped found Mazon, an organization to combat hunger in the United States and Israel that asks affluent Jewish families celebrating bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, weddings and other life milestones to donate 3 percent of the cost of the celebration to help feed the needy.
In 2004, during the High Holy Days, Rabbi Schulweis delivered a sermon on the subject of genocide.
“We took an oath, ‘Never again!’ ” he said. “Was this vow to protect only Jews from the curse of genocide? God forbid that our children and grandchildren ask of us, ‘Where was the synagogue during Rwanda, when genocide took place and 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days?’ ”
With a lawyer, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, who was listening that day, Rabbi Schulweis founded Jewish World Watch, a coalition of Jewish groups that supports survivors of atrocities in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Valley Beth Shalom congregation, which is composed of some 1,800 families and a total of about 10,000 people, according to Rabbi Feinstein, belongs to the Conservative branch of Judaism, but Rabbi Schulweis brought a forthright progressivism to it.
His synagogue was open to all, Jews and non-Jews, seeking a spiritual home. In the early 1990s, he welcomed gay men and lesbians to the congregation. As a counterweight to the isolating potential of life in the suburbs, he initiated the practice known as Havurot, the gathering of small groups of families to share religious and secular occasions. He believed in a God who worked not imperiously on his own but through people, and a religion that encourages the striving of humanity rather than admonishing its shortcomings.
“Religion often succumbs to the cult of ‘commandedness,’ ” he wrote in his book “Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey” (2008), “too often assuming the role of the self-muted bystander to the callous and cruel insults to the human spirit. From the height of the pulpit, religion may sing the moral heroism of conscience, but closer to the congregation the encomium of conscience is transformed into stern admonitions of heresy, rebellion and anarchy.
“Toward conscience, religion is ambivalent. Conscience remains forever suspect. In a world increasingly laden with unspeakable crimes against humanity all in the name of pious compliance, the lameness and lethal silence of the ecclesia are disillusioning. More is expected of religion. Does religion have the capacity, or more poignantly, does it have the will to counter the suppressive culture of obedience with the culture of moral courage and compassion?”
Harold Maurice Schulweis was born in the Bronx on April 14, 1925. His father, Maurice, was a journalist and an antireligious socialist who held salons in the family living room for like-minded Yiddish poets and writers. Young Harold did not set foot in a synagogue until he was 12. On a day off from school, passing by and attracted by the music, he wandered into a Rosh Hashana service and was captivated.
His mother, the former Helen Rezack, was the daughter of a pious man, and she brought her son to her father for lessons in Hebrew and Jewish history. Rabbi Feinstein said young Harold gave his bar mitzvah speech in three languages: Yiddish to please his father, English to please his mother and Hebrew to please his grandfather.
Rabbi Schulweis graduated from a Jewish day school now called Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy, and from Yeshiva University. He received his rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary and also studied with the philosopher Sidney Hook at New York University, earning an M.A. His first congregation was in the Parkchester section of the Bronx.
From 1952 until 1970 Rabbi Schulweis led the congregation at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Calif., and completed a doctorate in theology at the Pacific School of Religion in nearby Berkeley. During the 1960s, he was on the local board of the N.A.A.C.P. and was a spiritual adviser to many of the Jewish radicals on the Berkeley campus.
In 1967, hearing that Jewish runaways had flocked to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, he arranged to hold a Passover Seder in a church there. Hundreds of young people attended.
“A Seder for hippies,” Rabbi Feinstein said, with a laugh. “The Passover of love. He felt something ethical in the youth of the ’60s, and he wanted to be a part of it.”
Rabbi Schulweis is survived by his wife, the former Malkah Savod, whom he married in 1949; two sons, Seth and Ethan; a daughter, Alyssa Reich; and 11 grandchildren. His other books include “Evil and the Morality of God” (1984) and “In God’s Mirror” (1990).
High-minded and high-achieving as he was, Rabbi Schulweis had a common touch and enjoyed a good laugh. In 1991 he was an adviser for an episode of“The Simpsons” in which Krusty, the television clown admired by young Bart, reveals he is a Jew (né Krustofsky) who was scorned by his rabbi father (voiced by Jackie Mason). In the end, Bart effects a reconciliation, and after a tearful hug in front of a live audience on Krusty’s show, Rabbi Krustofsky squishes a pie in his son’s face.
“I thought it had a Jewish resonance to it,” Rabbi Schulweis said afterward about the episode, as reported in “The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family” (2001), by Mark I. Pinsky. The show’s writers, he said, “have a Yiddish spark in them.”