Elaine Amir remembers meetings of the Foundation for Jewish Studies when the group’s founder, Rabbi Joshua O. Haberman, then in his 90s, sometimes seemed to disengage from the discussion.
“You’ll think he’s not paying attention or that he’s drifting off,” said Amir, the foundation’s president, “and all of a sudden he’ll say the exact program he’s formulating in his mind. It was just amazing to watch him operate. You never knew what he was going to come up with, but you knew it was going to be really smart.”
Haberman, a Reform rabbi, created the Rockville-based Foundation for Jewish Studies in 1983 because he believed adult education was the best means to assure the continuity of the Jewish people. He led the flagship Washington Hebrew Congregation for 17 years, died Sunday. He was 98.
Haberman, whose rabbinic career spanned more than seven decades, continued to work with the foundation, which offers university-level Jewish adult education, until he became ill in recent months, Amir said.
“For years, he was everything,” Amir said. “He did all the outreach, all the programming. He’s a one-man whirlwind. He is a man of great energy and force who could quote “everything from the psalms to the Greek philosophers.”
At a funeral Tuesday attended by more than 400 people at Washington Hebrew Congregation, Haberman was eulogized as a kind, loving, passionate and intellectual spiritual leader.
But even as a rabbi of local and national distinction, his family said, he always made time for them. Daughters Judy Forman and Deborah Perelmuter told of the time he officiated a very important wedding between two of their dolls before running out to officiate a real-life one.
His grandson, Ben Perelmuter, said he was an average student in high school without much direction. He went to his grandfather for some “Hail Mary advice” and Haberman came up with an idea.
“After what must have been a Herculean amount of thought and research, Grandpa concluded that I’d be great at running hotels. He knew I had a voracious appetite for socialization — and I always wanted to be on vacation,” said Ben Perelmuter, who is now vice president of operations at Aimbridge Hospitality.
But Haberman didn’t reserve sage advice for only his family. Linda Grodin, a 45-year member of Washington Hebrew Congregation, said she always felt she could go to him when she needed counsel.
“Just six months ago he gave me advice about my granddaughter marrying outside the faith,” she said.
Led congregation in transformation
Haberman was studying at a rabbinical seminary in his native Vienna when Austria was overrun by Nazi Germany in 1938. He escaped to the United States, where Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati, had invited him to complete his studies.
Ordained in 1945, he led congregations in Mobile, Ala., Buffalo, N.Y., and Trenton, N.J., before coming to Washington Hebrew Congregation in 1969.
“Josh was an outstanding rabbi,” said Washington Hebrew Congregation’s senior rabbi, Bruce Lustig.
Lustig recalled Haberman as a congregational leader and teacher so influential that even in retirement, Haberman drew 700 congregants to High Holiday seminars starting in 2003.
He said Haberman was instrumental in helping the synagogue transition from classical Reform Judaism to a more contemporary approach.
“He was an incredibly gracious leader,” Lustig said. “He carried the congregation through some amazing, transformative changes. He was always committed to scholarship and to bringing Jewish learning to the congregation. If he offered serious, substantive Jewish learning, adults would embrace that opportunity.
“As he got further into his years, he came to be much more reflective on life, and he gave incredible lessons to all of us in his sermons,” Lustig said.
Lustig called Haberman a mentor, and said the biggest lesson he learned from his predecessor was that “you have to have grist for your mill,” meaning that “you can never stop learning.”
Overshadowing his work on the pulpit was Haberman’s lifelong passion for teaching and learning, friends and
In a 2015 profile in Washington Jewish Week, Haberman said a friend presented him with a $1 million check to be used “for what you think would do the most good for the Jewish people.” So he created the Foundation for Jewish Studies.
The nonprofit organization brought scholarly Jewish seminars and speakers to Greater Washington. In 2015, the foundation renamed its distinguished scholar series in his honor. At the dedication he told the audience, “You cannot write a finished history of the Jews. The reason is that Jewish learning always is ‘to be continued.’”
Complex study is for adults
In the profile, Haberman said he thought it was best to wait until adulthood to introduce Jews to sophisticated texts. He also said he was passionate about teaching, because education is the best way to combat anti-Semitism — something he was “constantly exposed” to while growing up in Vienna.
Amir explained Haberman’s sentiment.
“When you know what your history and what your culture is, when people say something to you that is anti-Semitic and not correct, you have the wherewithal to respond,” she said. You’re an educated responder and representative of your religion and culture.”
Haberman was ecumenical in his approach to other religions and inclusive when it came to Jews who did not share his Reform beliefs. In the 1970s, he offered a hand to Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, then a newcomer looking to found what is now Chabad Lubavitch of Maryland. The two met at what is now the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.
“He came over to me and introduced himself,” Kaplan said. “He invited me to his home. We were on very friendly terms. And he was very supportive of my efforts to establish Chabad in my area. Every year he would get the Chabad calendar and he would call me and say, ‘This year there’s more.’ He was always excited about that.”
Former foundation president Arnold Hammer said he was struck by Haberman’s emphasis on pluralism when teaching Jews.
“He was always anxious to make sure no one in the Jewish world was excluded, no matter if they were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or nonreligious,” he said.
In the 2015 profile, Haberman pointed out the much-improved relations between Christians and Jews, and said he saw “Christianity as a Jewish sect.”
“I believe eventually there will be unification,” he said. “It will take a while, but there’s no rush.”
Haberman said in the profile that there is still much progress to be made in relations between Jews and Muslims, because the latter religion is “led by its militants” even though “the vast majority of Muslims don’t want warfare.”
Haberman held religious dialogues with faith leaders such as the Rev. Billy Graham, Imam Wallace D. Muhammad and Cardinal William Baum. He preached at the White House and Congress, and after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 he spoke at a national prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral.
Haberman is survived by his wife of 73 years, Maxine Rudin Haberman; children Deborah Perelmuter (and husband, Rabbi Mayer Perelmuter), Judith Forman (wife of the late Rabbi David Forman), Daniel Haberman (and wife, Osna Haberman), Michael Haberman (and wife, Martha Kruger), 15 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren.
He also taught as an adjunct professor at Washington-area universities. Among his books were “Facing the Crises of Life,” “Three Cities in the Making of a Rabbi: Vienna, Washington and Jerusalem,” and “The God I Believe In: Conversations about Judaism.”
In the profile, Haberman said that he had no fear of running out of ideas for books, classes and sermons.
“I’ve been a rabbi for 71 years.” he said. “There’s always new material.”
Managing Editor David Holzel and Senior Writer Hannah Monicken contributed to this article.