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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jones

In Between Lines

Today was Rabbi Herman Schaalman’s (z”l) funeral.

When he gave his last Yom Kippur sermon in 2016, he recounted that he’d been giving High Holy Day sermons for 80 of his then 98 years. It was enough.

His story is well-documented and fairly easy to find on the internet. Google has not and will not forget him. He was born in Munich during the first World War and came to the USA to attend Hebrew Union College (a Jewish seminary) just before the start of World War II. At 19 he arrived with nothing and nobody and in the 81 years that followed, he reached thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish people through teaching, preaching and camping.

I have been a member of his synagogue since I started going to services in late 2004. While he wasn’t MY rabbi, he was my rabbi’s rabbi. Every year at Yom Kippur, a portion of his sermon was dedicated to telling us to get married already. To have children, already.

There are stories that I’d heard second hand and stories I learned today. About how his first fiance died tragically, but then he met Lotte to whom he was married 75 years and 8 months. I knew that he had escaped Nazi Germany, but this week I learned that he once snuck out of a cafe when Hitler came in. He taught his regular Torah class the day after his wife died, but today we learned that in after his wife’s death (only 18 days before his own) he officiated his grandson’s wedding in his living room.

There were eight eulogies today.

A priest who recalled Rabbi Schaalman’s remarkable friendship with Cardinal Berdanin and how that friendship began to mend centuries of bad blood between Catholics and Jews. He shared a stanza from a poem by Australian writer Adam Lindsey Gordon.

Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone, KINDNESS in another’s trouble, COURAGE in your own.

Then there were eulogies from five rabbis, though there were probably 100 more wishing to share their memories and lessons learned. His three grand-children and his two children each took the bimah to remember the man they loved so much.

I went today hoping to be filled up with stories to power me as we build a resistance. Eulogies and officiating from ten members of the clergy who understand the separation of church and state (and tax exemption laws), meant I had to read between the lines to find the fire in the room.

Here’s what I got.

The funeral began and ended with melodies that Elie Wiesel taught Rabbi Schaalman when they were on a retreat together.

We were reminded that Rabbi Schaalman’s final torah portion was that of the burning bush. A fire that burns and does not consume.

His son told us the story of his father receiving a telegram at a wedding that said “Your father’s in Dachau. Save him. Mom” and how he was able to make arrangements for his parents to escape Nazi Germany.

We were told that Rabbi Schaalman had no time for nostalgia or the ‘good ol’ days.’ He was grounded in Torah and driven by and to change. He helped pave the way for women to become rabbis. He helped redefine “who is a Jew” in the Reform movement to include people raised Jewishly with one Jewish parent. At the end of his life, he openly questions God’s existence, but never questioned that the Torah was worth studying.

As a survivor of the Holocaust without an extended family, it wasn’t until he officiated his grandson’s marriage two weeks ago that he felt he had finally established roots.

He drove to any college that would have him teach, because he believed that interfaith dialogue and relationships is the only way to stop the next Holocaust.

When he first arrived in NYC from Germany, before the five scholarship students went to Ohio, he was taken to Coney Island. There he saw a group of teens in Nazi regalia who were being beaten by Jewish teens. It was not the salami effect he saw in Germany – go along to get along, how much worse can it get. Instead the Jews he saw in America were standing up for themselves. (In short, it’s okay to punch a Nazi).

He was a patriot, “because this country saved his life. America was a lifeboat out of Nazi Germany.”

His son talked about how serious his dad was. “He was serious, because the world deserved to be taken seriously.”

Oh, how we need to get back to taking the world seriously.

While there wasn’t an unabashed call to fight fascism, I heard it said between anecdotes and stories. The unabashed calls were to have personal relationships, to strive for a long marriage, and to break bread with people of other faith traditions.

So I’ll do that.

And in doing so, I will also fight the rise of fascism at home and abroad.

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