His works, teachings, publications and organizations not only transformed portions of the San Fernando Valley, but reached throughout the United States and the world.
“Harold Schulweis was a public intellectual who redefined what it is to be a Jew, an author and passionate orator who met injustices and suffering with action,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, his friend and successor as senior rabbi at VBS.
“He transformed his synagogue into a living laboratory of social activism and creative spiritual life, introducing innovations that became staples for Jewish congregations across North America,” Feinstein said.
Schulweis recognized the power of congregations to shape the lives of a generation of Jews isolated from community and alienated from their traditions. In 1970, he took the pulpit of VBS in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley. Under his leadership, the synagogue grew to become the largest Conservative congregation in the Western United States.
In 1970, Rabbi Schulweis was invited to the pulpit of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley community of Encino. He transformed his synagogue into a living laboratory of social activism and creative spiritual life introducing innovations that became staples for Jewish congregations across North America. In 1971, Schulweis introduced synagogue-based "Havurot," gathering small groups of families to share religious and family life. His "Para-Rabbinic" initiative offered a revolutionary model of lay-professional synagogue leadership. A para-professional Counseling Center was established at Valley Beth Shalom offering psychological and family support to the synagogue and wider communities. In 1992, Schulweis was among the first rabbis in the Conservative Movement to openly welcome gay and lesbian Jews into the synagogue.
Schulweis' reach went far beyond his congregation. His pulpit became a launching pad for his efforts to re-focus contemporary Judaism. He founded the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (jfr.org), recognizing, celebrating and supporting Christians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. With Rabbi Leonard Fine, he founded Mazon (Mazon.org), a Jewish community response to hunger and poverty in America. In 2004, he established Jewish World Watch (JewishWorldWatch.org), a coalition of Jewish organizations dedicated to raising awareness and mobilizing resources in response to the on-going genocide in Darfur and the Congo.
Speaking on the occasion of Schulweis' 80th birthday in 2005, Rabbi Harold Kushner described him as "the finest Rabbi in America." At a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the founding of Jewish World Watch earlier this year, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg described Schulweis is "one of the great teachers of our people's history."
As much public intellectual as pulpit rabbi, Schulweis authored nine books and hundreds of articles in which he offered a unique version of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. Schulweis' "Theological humanism" is rooted in the Biblical conviction that the human being bears the divine image, and in philosopher Martin Buber's concept of God revealed in deep human relationships. Schulweis imagined God not above us, but within and between human beings. Prayer and religious observance, Schulweis instructed, are not directed above as a plea for supernatural intervention, but within - as an inspiration to individual and communal reflection, commitment and moral action. Building on the theology developed in his doctoral writing, Schulweis advocated "predicate theology," identifying those aspects of human activity which are "Godly". "God," he frequently argued, "is not believed, but behaved". Conscience is the living nexus between the divine and the human in everyday life. The cultivation of conscience is the central function of religious life and religious education.
Among Rabbi Schulweis' greatest legacy is his vast library of publications that will live on and serve for generations to come in his memory. Just a few of note are: Evil and the Morality of God (Jersey City, N.J: Ktav Pub. House, 2010.); For Those Who Can't Believe, Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith (1995, New York: Harper Perennial; Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage from Birth to Immortality (2001, New York: URJ Press); In God's Mirror, Reflections and Essays (2003, Jersey City, NJ: KTAV); Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey. (2010, Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights); Embracing the Seeker (2010, Halperin, M., (Ed.) Jersey City, NJ: KTAV). The Schulweis Institute online library, www.hmsi.info, offers a collection serving as the living repository for over 750 audio, video and document copies of the Rabbi's writings, sermons and teachings.
Schulweis is survived by his wife, Malkah, his children Seth Schulweis of West Los Angeles, Ethan Schulweis of Beit Hashita, Israel, and Alyssa (Peter) Reich of West Los Angeles, and eleven grandchildren.
The funeral will take place at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Boulevard, Encino, CA at 11 a.m. on Sun., Dec. 21, 2014. A private burial will follow.