Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman’s leadership extended far beyond his sanctuary

Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman’s leadership extended far beyond his sanctuary

The late Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman was born and raised in Germany, ordained in Ohio, and had his first pulpit in Iowa. But the most time he spent in any one place was in Chicago. In fact, he was dubbed "Edgewater's living treasure."

Schaalman was a longtime leader in the Chicago Jewish community, including serving as a past president of JUF's Chicago Board of Rabbis as well as a member of the JUF Board of Directors. He passed away on Jan. 31, only two weeks after the death of his beloved Lotte, his wife of 75 years.

"The worldwide Jewish community has lost a great rabbinic thought leader," said JUF President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir. "Rabbi Herman Schaalman was my friend and colleague whose leadership and work in the pulpit, Jewish camping, interfaith dialogues, and civic leadership was spectacular to watch. In addition, he was a strong supporter of JUF/Federation and a member of its board, who, in 1999, received the well-deserved and coveted Federation Rosenwald Award."

Schaalman was the oldest living Reform rabbi. He originally moved to the United States from Germany in 1935. An Orthodox 20-something who didn't speak English, he was thrust into a Reform seminary-Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion-in Cincinnati. "What enabled me to be adaptable, I don't know. That I had to do it, I did know," he later recalled. "That it wasn't easy, I remember well."

Schaalman came to Chicago in 1949 to serve as the Midwest Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations-now called the Union for Reform Judaism. In 1956, he became the Senior Rabbi at Emanuel Congregation, where he served for 30 years, until 1986. 

After his retirement from Emanuel Congregation in 1986, he turned his prodigious energy to fight for social justice, to help the homeless, people in need, and to alleviate injustice. As president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, he pushed its social action agenda for the benefit of Chicago's underprivileged. At the same time, he was president of the JUF's Chicago Board of Rabbis, president of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, and a trustee of the Council of the Parliament of the World's Religions.

He was the founding director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI), a summer camp, and continued to teach there until he was in his late 90s.

He also played a role in establishing OSRUI's first camp for Jewish youth. \Supported by JUF, OSRUI opened in Wisconsin in 1952. "I want the children to have the fullness of Jewish experience," he said.  OSRUI's camps have has since expanded into 18 camp programs across the U.S. and Canada.

Jerry Kaye, OSRUI's current and longtime director, said Schaalman "really devoted himself to the programs and the focus of what camp is and what it does. He was one of those people who was dependably teaching every summer, and the kids loved him."

Schaalman also served as president of JUF's Chicago Board of Rabbis; in 2012, he was honored by his colleagues with the Rabbi Mordecai Simon Memorial Award, named for the Board's first president.

In explaining why he pursued the rabbinate, he said it was the influence of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, with whom he had studied as a teen in Germany. From Buber, the young Schaalman learned, "I had to be something for God, even if it was less than what God could be for me."

But Schaalman reached far beyond his own religious community, well known for his involvement with interdenominational efforts in Chicago, Schaalman was invited to speak at area churches, and in turn had their leaders address his congregation

Additionally, Schaalman co-founded Council of Religious Leaders of Chicago with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin and served as its president; the Council later awarded him its first Interreligious Leadership Award. He also served as president of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and as a trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions.

In Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Schaalman found a friend and kindred spirit devoted to interfaith dialogue. "In Germany, when my father and I would go on walks, he would never even pass by the door of a Catholic Church," he recalled. "Here, I became the best friend of the Roman Catholic leader of one of the most important Catholic communities in the world."

For a series of videos on Chicago's Jewish history, Schaalman was interviewed by Aaron B. Cohen, JUF Vice President of Communications. Asked why he entered the world of interfaith dialogue, the rabbi responded, "Interfaith relations are a key to Jewish survival. Had there been interfaith life in Germany, maybe the German people would not have been ready to accept Hitler and be seduced by him."

Schaalman often recalled the pre-Shoah (pre-Holocaust) world he knew that was lost. He spoke of it at a JUF-sponsored event commemorating the 75 th anniversary of Kristallnacht; he was officiating a wedding in Germany, he remembered, when he got a note saying his father had been taken to the Dachau concentration camp.

Over the years, Schaalman received many honors for his contributions to the Jewish community. The Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, which is supported by JUF, awarded him a Doctorate of Hebrew Letters, honoris causa, for his contributions in fostering strong Jewish participation in interfaith dialogue. In 1991, JCC Chicago inducted him to their Hall of Fame.

And in 1999, Schaalman was honored with the Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award, Federation's highest honor. In receiving the award, he noted that he stood at the end of a millennium, but mostly spoke of the future: "We Jews are, in particular, future-oriented. We know this reality is incomplete, and we know ourselves to be charged to help fix it. We are the people of tomorrow. We are poised for the flight into to the not-yet."

Schaalman was predeceased by Lotte, his wife of 75 years, by two weeks, and also predeceased by his brothers Ernst and Manfred and his sister-in-law Ilse. Schaalman was survived by his children, Susan (Charles Shulkin) Youdovin and Michael (Roberta) Schaalman. He also was survived by his grandchildren, Julie (Justin Shriver) Youdovin, Joshua (Sheri) Youdovin, Johanna (Adam Goodman) Schaalman, Keren (Dan Jackson) Schaalman, and Jeremy (Giulia) Schaalman. He was the great-grandfather of Annie Rose, Michael, Ilse, Elijah, and Miriam. Contributions in his memory may be made to Emanuel Congregation or Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute. Services were by Chicago Jewish Funerals, with internment at Rosehill Cemetery.

Jennifer Brody is a former associate editor at JUF News and a freelance writer living in Chicago.

Paul Wieder is associate editor of JUF News.


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