Sid Schwarz’s continuing mission

Rabbi Sid Schwarz speaks on the Chautauqua Institution interfaith lecture platform in 2017.
Photo by Cam Buker/The Chautauquan Daily

A few years ago, Rabbi Sid Schwarz sat down with a film crew to discuss “calling and chutzpah.” Schwarz recounted the story of stepping down as rabbi at Bethesda’s Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, which he founded. Schwarz was running a Jewish youth leadership group at the time and decided he could no longer do both.

“A large part of the decision was being more present to the family,” Schwarz said. “I was just not being fair to my house responsibilities, my family, my children.”

But rather than excitement or relief, Schwarz said, his children reacted to the news with despair.

“They were devastated,” he said. “Devastated.”

What Schwarz, 65, came to realize in the intervening years, he said, was that his children’s pride in his rabbinical role seemed to balance out the long hours he spent building that community.

“It was part of what made me alive,” Schwarz said.

But stepping down as Adat Shalom’s senior rabbi did not mean Schwarz was slowing down. He continued to run Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, and write books and articles.

In 2007, Newsweek named him one of the 50 most influential rabbis in the United States. And Schwarz is currently a senior fellow at Hazon, a Jewish sustainability organization, where he directs Kenissa, a network meant to identify and support new models of Jewish identity in North America, and The Clergy Leadership Incubator, a fellowship program for rabbis.

“I’m in awe of how much he’s able to accomplish in a given amount of time,” said Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, who succeeded Schwarz as senior rabbi at Adat Shalom. “Multiply that by all the years of a career and it is a staggering output.”

That output was recognized by Reconstructing Judaism, the Reconstructionist movement umbrella organization, during its rabbinical college graduation ceremony in Philadelphia this month when Schwarz was awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters.

“You have led existing institutions in vitalizing ways, and you have founded new organizations to foster creativity,” Reconstructing Judaism President Deborah Waxman told Schwarz at the ceremony. “You are equally open to what is and to what can be.”

Go-to guy for relevance

In recent years, Schwarz has been among the chorus of Jewish leaders sounding an alarm about the falling affiliation rates of young Jews and the need to reinvent synagogues and communal institutions.

But he draws a uniquely wide audience to the message.

“Schwarz is a major go-to guy for Jewish institutions looking to stay relevant,” Sue Fishkoff, editor of j. The Jewish News of Northern California, wrote in a 2013 column. “He moves easily between the Jewish establishment (federations, JCCs, brick-and-mortar synagogues) and the world of Jewish innovation  (indie minyans, environmental activism, social justice, the food movement).”

In addition to his broad appeal, Dobb said Schwarz draws upon an especially varied array of influences.

Coming up in the Reconstructionist movement during the 1970s, Dobb said that Schwarz absorbed the original ethos of the denomination. Founder Mordecai Kaplan’s belief that Jewish history and values should ground the faith but not box out modernity held more sway at the time, Dobb said.

“Kaplan’s influence and the social sciences still loomed incredibly large — sociology and anthropology were just natural, go-to approaches,” Dobb said of the era when Schwarz attended the movement’s rabbinical college. “[Schwarz] is remarkably able to synthesize the spiritual and the secular and works
magic with that combination.”

Dobb pointed to the Panim program, which has brought more than 30,000 teenagers to Washington to learn about politics and civic engagement since Schwarz founded it in 1988, as an example of taking an ostensibly secular activity and imbuing it with Judaism.

For his part, Schwarz doesn’t see much of his work outside of Adat Shalom as particularly Reconstructionist.

“Kaplan was very much a universal thinker and I’m trying to implement in ways that I understand,” Schwarz said. “I don’t use the Reconstructionist label because, in a partisan world, people don’t like labels that aren’t their own.”

Waxman, the Reconstructing Judaism president, noted during the graduation ceremony that years ago Schwarz “told me you thought the best way to advance a Reconstructionist perspective is not to label it but to go out in the world and model it.”

Judaism and politics go together

Schwarz was raised on Long Island by parents who had both survived the Holocaust and attended an Orthodox yeshivah. He traces his rabbinical path to a 1970 trip to the Soviet Union, which kickstarted two decades of activism on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

“My career always paired Judaism and politics,” he said.

Schwarz relocated to the Washington area to attend the University of Maryland, primarily because it was one of the few universities at the time that offered a full kosher food program. After working part time at what was then Temple Israel in Silver Spring and at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, he swapped a plan to attend law school for rabbinical school. His interest in Kaplan’s scholarship drew him to the Reconstructionist movement.

Schwarz said that while he did not explicitly plan to become the sort of entrepreneur he is today, he has always felt compelled to find solutions to problems he saw with the Jewish establishment.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, right, accepts his honors from Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president of Reconstructing Judaism, and Seth Rosen, chair of Reconstructing Judaism’s Board of Governors.
Photo provided

“I don’t think rabbis set out to be a certain kind of rabbi,” he said. “But I’ve never been satisfied with the existing structure in the Jewish world — I’ve always through about how to reconstruct them, if you will, with a small ‘r.’”

Schwarz has prescribed various frameworks for helping stanch falling affiliation rates among young and millennial generation Jews, among other issues. One cites five principles of successful Jewish community, and encourages congregations and institutions to adopt them. They are: wisdom; holiness or sacred purpose; justice; meaningful communities; and creativity.

One of his current projects, the Clergy Leadership Incubator, is a two-year program to teach rabbis institutional transformation by cultivating “voice,” “vision” and “spiritual leadership.”

Some of Schwarz’s other community building work has been less flashy. Dobb, the Adat Shalom rabbi, pointed to an initiative Schwarz implemented when he founded the congregation in the late 1980s.

Schwarz wanted members to stay and eat after Shabbat services. To achieve this, he convened a potluck committee that organized members to bring 50 servings of a vegetarian meal on a rotating basis every week. Dobb said people sat together for far longer than if the synagogue had provided light refreshments following services.

“It means that people faced each other for a sizeable chunk of their time in synagogue each Shabbat rather than the classic direction of racing forward to watch the action up front,” Dobb said. “That’s how community grows.”

For all the success Schwarz has had, challenges remain. He said that Israel remains an intractable issue in many parts of the Jewish community. As someone interested in new forms and expressions of Jewish identify, Schwarz said he is disappointed that the innovative approaches to Judaism and what it means to be Jewish in Israel receive such little discussion in the United States due to the focus on politics.

“For a well-educated, bright Jewish community, our conversation around Israel is very impoverished,” Schwarz said.

He also acknowledged that even if the American Jewish establishment and its many constituent parts start doing everything right, affiliation rates are never likely to return to where they were in the mid-20th century.

Partly, Schwarz said, that’s because Jews have been accepted into American society in a way that means they no longer need the protection of an insular community.

“Create a more hostile environment for Jews and you’ll see affiliation rates rising,” he said. “The challenge to people who are custodians of the tradition is to make the case that Judaism provides value-added for Jews who don’t necessarily need it.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.

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