Alfred Gottschalk, revered Reform leader, dies in Cincinnati

79-year-old ordained first women rabbis in the US and Israel.

gottschalk 88 (photo credit: )
gottschalk 88
(photo credit: )
Alfred Gottschalk, a central leader of Reform Judaism who was instrumental in strengthening the movement's ties with Israel and who ordained the first American and Israeli female rabbis, passed away Saturday in Cincinnati. He was 79. Rabbi Gottschalk, who died from complications following an automobile accident last year, headed the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for three decades. "Before Professor Gottschalk, it was not always taken for granted that so many Reform Judaism resources would be diverted to strengthening ties with Israel," said Rabbi Michael Marmur, the former dean of the HUC Israeli campus who is now vice president of academic affairs for all four HUC campuses in Jerusalem, New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. "Professor Gottschalk was not the only Reform leader who was extremely Zionist, but he was one of the most instrumental in bringing about a major change in Reform Judaism's attitude toward Zionism." Gottschalk earned his doctorate in philosophy and the history of religion from University of Southern California and was an authority on Ahad Ha'Am, an influential theorist of cultural Zionism. Marmur said that in Gottschalk's New York office there were pictures of his various encounters with Israeli prime ministers from Menachem Begin to Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. "He built on the work of his predecessor, Nelson Glueck, when he became the president of the HUC in 1971," said Marmur, who was ordained by Gottschalk. The Reform Movement, which was originally antagonistic toward Zionism, considering it a rival ideology for modern Jewish life, gradually changed its perspective, in part thanks to Gottschalk, said Marmur. "After the War of Independence, but more importantly after the Six Day War, it became clear that Israel was a permanent center of Jewish culture. And Gottschalk responded by strengthening Reform Judaism's ties with Israel," he said. In Cincinnati in 1972, Gottschalk ordained Sally Priesand, the nation's first female rabbi. "The Conservative movement and the Orthodox movement thought we had betrayed tradition by ordaining a woman as rabbi. He bucked the system. It was a very courageous statement," said Uri D. Herscher, who worked alongside Gottschalk at Hebrew Union College for 25 years. The Conservative movement, which was nearly torn apart over the issue, has been ordaining women since 1985. Orthodoxy does not ordain women, though there have been moves toward giving women the tools to answer halachic questions, such as training women to answer questions regarding family purity issues. Gottschalk also ordained Israel's first Reform rabbi - Mordecai Rotem - in 1980 and its first female rabbi - Na'ama Kelman Ezrahi - in 1992. Kelman now serves as dean of the HUC campus in Jerusalem. The German-born Gottschalk, who escaped the Holocaust as a child, oversaw the expansion of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary and graduate school. He later served as chancellor. Before rising to president, he was dean for 12 years of the Los Angeles campus, where he created an innovative program to train Jewish community service workers. He also established a novel joint program in Judaic studies with its neighbor, the University of Southern California. He served under presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as a founding member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and actively guided the development of the United States Holocaust Museum, particularly during a critical period after Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel stepped down as chairman in 1986. He also oversaw the expansion of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City as its president from 2000 to 2003. "Alfred Gottschalk was a genuine giant in the Jewish community who never forgot his roots in Germany and labored his entire life to improve the world and strengthen so many educational and religious institutions in the Jewish community and beyond," said Rabbi David Ellenson, the college-institute's president. Gottschalk experienced anti-Semitism as a boy in Oberwesel, Germany, where he was born on March 7, 1930. Oberwesel residents revered the memory of a young Christian boy named Werner, who allegedly was murdered by Jews in the Middle Ages. "It was a quiet town," Gottschalk recalled in a 2000 interview with The Jewish Week, "excerpt on Werner's Day, when my friends used to beat me up." In 1938, when he was eight, he witnessed the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses in an anti-Jewish pogrom carried out by Hitler's agents. Decades later, Gottschalk often would recall watching his frail grandfather wade into a creek to rescue pieces of the Torah scrolls that the Nazis had seized from the synagogue and hacked to pieces. Handing the pieces to his grandson, the old man said, "One day you will put it together again." Rebuilding what the Nazis destroyed became Gottschalk's mission in life. With his mother, Gottschalk fled Germany, arriving in New York in 1939. He shined shoes to earn pocket money and learned English at Sunday matinees. "I once thanked President Reagan for teaching me English - he was in all the movies at that time," Gottschalk recalled, in a 2000 interview with the Jewish weekly Forward. He attended Boys High School in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1952. He began his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, transferring to the Cincinnati campus in 1954. He was ordained in 1957 and became dean of the college-institute's Los Angeles campus in 1959. He led the Los Angeles campus until 1971, when he became president of the college-institute until 1996. Gottschalk is survived by his wife, Deanna; two children, Marc Gottschalk and Rachel Brenner; two stepchildren, Charles Frank and Andrew Frank; and nine grandchildren. News agencies contributed to this report.