I went to Rabbi Schaalman's funeral today. Two months before his 101st birthday, 8 months after their 75th wedding anniversary, and two weeks after the death of his beloved Lotte.
Just as I started high school, my family abruptly moved from Joliet back to Chicago. My parents chose Congregation Emanuel to join, so Rabbi Schaalman taught my confirmation class. Not long after, though I was gone to college, he began a Torah study group every Saturday morning. Years later, back in Chicago after several absences, I began attending. My age had doubled but he impressed me just as much. That is my own metric to try to express his magnitude.
He didn't write. Not even his sermons. He could take a pulpit or dais, scheduled or impromptu, and be spellbinding. A few years ago he got a standing ovation at the annual meeting of the retired reform rabbis association. In his mid-90s, he remarked that he was glad he didn't write, because he'd read things he wrote ten or fifteen years ago and not like it because his thinking had developed and he disagreed.
He was born in Munich in 1916. His father served four years in the trenches, and happened to survive, and became a professor of mathematics and physics. A Jew growing up in Munich, he watched it all happening. Study with Martin Buber helped inspire him to become a rabbi, "I had to be something for God, even if it was less than what God could be for me." In 1935 he was one of five students selected by Rabbi Leo Baeck to come to the United States for a rabbinical school scholarship at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Thus he survived, and in time was known as one of the Gang of Five, giants in 20th century Reform Judaism.
One of his passions was interfaith relations, a very obvious expression of his own experience. He became so close to Cardinal Bernardin (Archbishop of Chicago 1982-1996) that when the Cardinal, in finally declining health, made the arrangements for his own funeral, he specified that Rabbi Schaalman gave the main eulogy.
My rabbi buried a Cardinal.
The long windowsill of his office had a clutter of certificates and plaques.
His vita includes:
President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Council of Religious Leaders of Chicago, Chicago Board of Rabbis, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, JUF's Chicago Board of Rabbis, Council of Religious Leaders of Chicago he co-founded with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin;
Honorary degrees include Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College, Honorary Doctorate from Chicago's Catholic Theological Union, Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning Doctorate of Hebrew Letters, honoris causa;
Taught at Northwestern University’s Garrett Theological Seminary, the Chicago Theological Seminary; the Catholic seminary of the Society of the Divine Word, and the North Park College Theological Seminary
Chicago Theological Seminary Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman Chair of Jewish Studies;
University of Chicago Herman E. and Lotte Schaalman Civilization Program for study in Jerusalem;
Trustee, member of the Executive Committee of the Council for the Parliament of World Religions;
Chicago Board of Rabbis Rabbi Mordecai Simon Memorial Award;
Council of Religious Leaders of Chicago's first Interreligious Leadership Award;
Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award;
International Council of Christians and Jews Interfaith Gold Medallion-Peace Through Dialogue;
JCC Chicago Hall of Fame;
Graham Taylor Award from Chicago Theological Seminary;
Order of Merit, First Class from the president of Germany;
and on his 91st birthday he threw out the first ball at a Cubs game.
Most important to him he founded the Union for Reform Judaism's Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, the first of the URJ’s summer camps, and continued to teach there until a few years ago.
זֵכֶר צַדִּיק לִבְרָכָה