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Chicago Rabbi Herman Schaalman turns 100

On April 28, Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman – the oldest living Rerform rabbi -- celebrated his 100th birthday.

On April 28, Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman - the oldest living Rerform rabbi -- celebrated his 100th birthday. 

As a refugee from Nazi Germany, Schaalman came to America in 1935 on a scholarship to Hebrew Union College. Six years later, on the same day as his ordination, he married his life-long wife, Lotte. After serving for eight years as the rabbi of a small congregation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Schaalman came to Chicago to be the Midwest Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In 1956, he took the post as senior rabbi at Chicago's esteemed Emanuel Congregation where he served for the next thirty years. 

During that time, Schaalman established himself as one of the foremost Reform rabbis in America. One of his major contributions to Reform Judaism, and the one he is most proud of, was his role in establishing the first summer camp for Jewish youth, Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin. The camp became a model for the development of eighteen other camp programs across the United States and Canada.

Over the more than seven decades of his long career, he has received many honors for his contribution to interfaith work both in the United States and worldwide. As part of his commitment to interreligious understanding and the promotion of a peaceful world, Schaalman served as a Trustee on the Board of the Millennium Institute and a member of the Executive Committee of the Council for the Parliament of World Religions. In 1991, the president of Germany honored him with the award of the Order of Merit, First Class. The International Council of Christians and Jews gave Schaalman its highest honor, the Interfaith Gold Medallion -- Peace Through Dialogue.

Because he believed that the Holocaust was partly the result of a lack of understanding of Jews and Judaism, Schaalman took positions in theological seminaries where, over the course of more than fifty years, he taught seminary students in both Catholic and Protestant seminaries including Northwestern's Garrett Theological Seminary from 1957 to 2014; Chicago Theological Seminary; Catholic Seminary of the Society of the Divine Word; and North Park College Theological Seminary. When he served as rabbi in Cedar Rapids in the 1940s, he taught at two local colleges Coe College and Cornell College.

Chicago's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies awarded him the Doctor of Hebrew Letters degree, honoris causa for his contributions in fostering strong Jewish participation in interfaith dialogue. His friendship for Chicago's Cardinal Bernardin set a precedent for interfaith cooperation. The two clerics become such close friends and associates, that Bernardin requested that Schaalman participate in his funeral, the first Rabbi ever to have officiated at a funeral for a Cardinal. Schaalman was awarded the prestigious Order of Lincoln Award from the Lincoln Academy of Illinois for his exceptional effort to advance religious knowledge and understanding among citizens of different religious persuasions.

In the early 1990s, after he had retired, Schaalman was able to devote more time to the issue of social justice and Jewish affairs. He served as president of The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and the Chicago Board of Rabbis. 

In 1991, Jewish Community Centers of Chicago named him its Honoree for its Hall of Fame. In the ceremony, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations congratulated him for his years of service to the Jewish community and acknowledged Schaalman's leadership as a "superb example" and "total commitment to our people and our faith."

Among his many other noteworthy awards is an Honorary Doctorate from Chicago's Catholic Theological Union, and the Graham Taylor Award from Chicago Theological Seminary for his outstanding lifetime dedication to a life of "selfless service, mercy and justice for all."

Late in his life, Schaalman's received two of his most cherished academic recognitions when the Chicago Theological Seminary, where he had taught for many years, established The Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman Chair of Jewish Studies in 2005. In 2012, the University of Chicago initiated the Herman E. and Lotte Schaalman Civilization Program for study in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Schaalman continues to teach and engage with members of Emanuel today, especially through Shabbat morning Torah study which a few dozen adult students attend regularly.  Begun in 1963 at the urging of several post-Confirmation students for after-school study, this practice has continued to the present, morphing to meet changing demands and new participants. Many of those early students continued to study with their rabbi for decades. A few who went away and came back, still participate, and one has been a continuous student for nearly forty-five years.   

To this day, Rabbi Schaalman is revered for his compassion, wisdom and leadership. For over 50 years, the Rabbi has continued to hold a vibrant weekly Saturday morning Torah study class hosting between 14-20 participants irrespective of weather or calendar. 

Rabbi Zedek, a close friend of Rabbi Schaalman and the senior rabbi of Emanuel Congregation said, "Rabbi Schaalman's influence on the Jewish world has been immeasurable. He has been a bridge among communities with some of his awesome pioneering work and has had an amazing impact on rabbis and American Jewish life and thought."


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