Aliya Stories: Making social activism spiritual

A lifelong quest to make the world a better place knows no boundaries.

The Schwartzes are greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by their two daughters’ families in August (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Schwartzes are greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by their two daughters’ families in August
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On August 3, 2016, Richard and Loretta Schwartz stepped off a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight into the embrace of the families of their two daughters, who had eagerly awaited this moment for years.
It wasn’t that they were opposed to aliya; in fact, in the 1950s, Richard Schwartz thought about joining a kibbutz because he so related to the ideal of communal living and cooperative efforts. The couple had long been considering joining their daughters, Susan Kleid and Devorah Gluch, who have raised their children in Israel.
It was just that the retired professor of mathematics still had so much he wanted to do before leaving the country of his birth.
But eventually he came to realize that he could not only continue his longtime environmental, social-justice and vegan advocacy work in Israel but also perhaps make an even greater impact.
“I plan to be actively involved in Israel. It is an ideal place to be an activist – a small country with many synagogues, yeshivas and other Jewish cultural and spiritual centers, ” says Schwartz, author of hundreds of articles and the books Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet.
“I have already given two talks at Protea Hills and two talks at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem and I have had a letter published in The Jerusalem Post each month that I have lived in Israel,” says the former president of JewishVeg, president of the Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians and president of the Americas for the International Jewish Vegetarian Society.
Protea Hills is the bucolic retirement community in Shoresh where the couple settled after 48 years in Staten Island, a borough of New York City.
Most days, Schwartz goes for a swim in the Protea Hills pool – sometimes in the company of a few of his 10 Israeli grandchildren – helps his wife in the kitchen and with chores, and attends evening talks, performances and movies.
“But much of my daily activities involve using the computer to stay upto- date with world news and to help promote causes that I believe in very strongly,” he says.
Schwartz’s activism niche, “applying Jewish values in efforts to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path,” had its roots in his college days in Queens, New York, but was honed considerably by his wife’s influence.
“Like most Jewish boys growing up in New York during the 1940s, I went to a Talmud Torah school a couple of afternoons a week after public school in order to prepare for my bar mitzva, but I did not grow up in a religious family and I was not particularly interested in Jewish teachings or societal issues. Rather, like most of my friends and classmates who did not go to Hebrew school, I was primarily interested in swimming in the nearby Atlantic Ocean, playing handball, baseball, basketball and other sports with friends, and rooting for the New York Yankees,” he relates.
He earned a degree in civil engineering from City University of New York.
During the first two years, he carpooled with liberal arts students at Queens College “whose views ranged from very conservative to extremely radical,” propelling him to recognize injustices in the world and his potential role in improving society.
“During this time, my involvement with Judaism diminished to practically nothing. I viewed the synagogues and Jewish groups as being primarily concerned with ritual for the sake of ritual, and with maintaining their membership rolls and social status. The Jewish institutions did not seem to be involved with the societal causes of the day, and they were totally irrelevant to me.”
In the spring of 1957, he took a position as a civil engineering instructor at City College of New York rather than enter the “rat race” of the business world. That summer he spent some time working on a kibbutz.
Schwartz met Loretta Susskind in 1959 at a singles party. “We married at the Utopia Jewish Center on February 14, 1960, and it has been paradise for us ever since,” he says.
Loretta, a social worker, shared her new husband’s interest in addressing social ills and helping less fortunate people. But she came from a more religious family and wanted to introduce Jewish rituals into their lives. Hesitantly at first, he began reading books she gave him and discovered that his ideas about working for a better world were compatible with the Jewish worldview.
“There was plenty of opportunity for a fulfilling spiritual, socially activist life within my own tradition!” he marveled.
Schwartz was especially inspired by the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a social activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., advocated for the liberation of Soviet Jews and spoke out against America’s military involvement in Vietnam.
“The more I learned,” Schwartz says, “the more I was able to relate Jewish theology to current social issues.”
Meanwhile, he became a professor of mathematics at the College of Staten Island, where he created a unique course, “Mathematics and the Environment,” and wrote a textbook, Mathematics and Global Survival.
He and Loretta raised three children: Susan, who now lives in Ma’aleh Adumim; David, a New Jersey resident; and Devorah, who lives in Beit Shemesh.
The first of their grandchildren born in Israel recently got married at a hall in Shoresh, just minutes from their home.
Having family nearby greatly helps them adjust to their new life and the challenges it brings.
“One of my main challenges is my weak Hebrew,” Schwartz says. “While one can get along relatively well with English in Israel and there are many English speakers and a weekly gathering for English speakers at Protea Hills, I miss understanding the Hebrew sermons and classes, I have trouble communicating with some of the people doing work on my apartment, and I have to depend on others to translate messages in Hebrew that I get via telephone or mail.”
Despite the language barrier, he continues spreading his message about the importance of a major shift away from animal-based diets to avert what he calls “a climate catastrophe” and to hew more closely to core Jewish values.
“Vegetarianism, and even more so, veganism, is the diet most consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people and pursuing peace,” he tells listeners.
Schwartz says he sees Judaism as “a radical religion, in the best sense of ‘radical,’ with powerful teachings on justice, peace, compassion, sharing and environmental sustainability, which can help in responding to current critical issues.”