Rabbi Herman Schaalman - Transcript

Transcript of interview with Rabbi Herman Schaalman
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Interviewer: Robert Remer
Date: February 11, 2013
Place: Chicago, Illinois.
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Total time: 51:38 minutes

Copyright © 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

HS: I’m ninety six years old going on ninety seven in a couple months. So I’ll be ninety seven, if I live that long. Secondly, I’ve been retired from Emanuel since 19… let’s see now 85 or 87. So I have not been part of the ongoing life of the community in any of the senses in which we travel.

I’ve been involved before that. And because I’ve had success I had to make room for others to be able to take his place in the community, which he has. Then I had actually three successors. This one is the best and the most effective. Rabbi Zedek. The first two successors worked out to be not good for the congregation and not good for the community. I suppose. Perhaps they didn’t take enough interest in it. But I want you to know that all of them. I know is presaged on the notion that if you want to know something about my earlier years. That’s something that I can dig up some of my memories.

DN: Let’s just document that today is February 11, 2013, and we are having an oral interview with Rabbi Schaalman at his home on Sheridan Road. First of all let me congratulate you as being one of the Edgewater Living Treasures. We appreciate so much all the work you’ve done for our community. It’s been very special. I’d like to ask you how you came to Edgewater?

HS: Well, I was called to be the Rabbi of Emanuel Congregation in 1967. Somewhere around there. That’s probably pretty close to when it was. Oh it’s got to be earlier than that. 1960, let’s see.

RR: Let me give you a frame of reference. The Edgewater Community Council was formed in 1960 and Rev. Pomeroy was one of the principals.

HS: So it was in the 1950s that I started my life here in Chicago. I came to Chicago in 49, six years with the Union [Union for Reform Judaism] and then, after the Union, I came to the Emanuel in 1955-56.

DN: So, you have been an Edgewater resident for over 50 years. You are truly one of our respected elders.

RR: You’re not a newcomer.

DN: So you came to Edgewater to serve the Jewish community at Emanuel.

HS: A new congregation. Yes.

DN: And once you started serving the community here. What impelled you to get more involved in community affairs?

HS: Well, in a sense I’ve been proud of my life before I came to Chicago. My rabbinate began in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1931 when I was ordained and then got married. My wife and I are married 71 years now going on 72. In Cedar Rapids. Curiously, the set of circumstances. I was in. I was there only half a year. I was invited to become part of the new Ministerial Association of Cedar Rapids, which was a Protestant only organization. No Roman Catholics were ever invited or ever a part of the Ministerial Association. But the sole Rabbi of Cedar Rapids, in this case I was not only invited I became a major component of their work.

So, I had had the opportunity to do something that was totally new and foreign from the culture from which I came, had no interfaith activity whatever. In fact, Protestants and Catholics were at loggerheads to the extent that I grew up in Munich, which was the capital of Bavaria, the main seat of Roman Catholicism in Germany, and the experience that when the class was divided up for religion instructions. The bulk of the men went with the priest came and the rest with the Protestant Minister. That left my friend and me who were the only Jews in the whole school. At the time the, I’m talking about high school now. I came from a background in which interfaith activity was simply not even know as an exercise.

But then I came to Cedar Rapids and for the first time that I learned there was something other than Lutherans. Because the only non-Catholics that I knew of were Lutherans. That’s all we had in Germany. So I learned about Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, etc. etc. etc. and I found personal relations with some of ministers of these various denominations and it really began to enrich my life – to add a dimension to it that I had never experienced and that no Rabbi that I ever knew in in European history at had any experience in or opportunity to have. So I must say to you that the moment I came to the United States. This was something that simply was part of my expectation, especially after the Cedar Rapids.

So when I came to Chicago. I realize that here in Edgewater, we had nothing. That coincided with the arrival of a Presbyterian minister by the name of I think Baum was his name. He was the first Presbyterian church of Edgewater. He made it a habit every day to walk the streets of Edgewater. And so he came by Emanuel. And asked on the outside if there was a Rabbi here. So Baum came in and knocked on my door and explained that he was a Presbyterian minister and he wanted to meet me. So we chatted and I found out there was no such as a Ministerial Association. And I said to him, “How would you like to begin a ministerial Association?” We must have all kinds of denominations, because he told me he knew everything in Edgewater. Every corner, he had walked every street, knew every church and he told me that there were dozens of churches and so on. So he said that was a good idea. Let’s try it.

So the two of us began to approach some of the ministers and our neighborhood. I know there were two Lutheran churches on Edgewater just west of Emanuel and we visited those. We visited… there was a Methodists ministry here. It was a very nice place just a couple blocks south on Ardmore. And anyhow, after a few of these attempts we found that people were quite willing to have such an organization. So we did. And again, I guess I became the vice president of the Ministerial Association. And I guess that was founded sometime in 1957. That would be my recollection.

And at first we met monthly and we develop very good relations and even the other ministers were very glad to find an outlet for their own need for support, for conversation, for like-minded people coming together to discuss problems either of the ministry or of the community or of politics. Whatever we wanted to talk about. We made no distinction between religions.

And so it started than and one of the notions that came out of it was, one of the Lutheran ministers suggested that we have a census, a religious census of Edgewater. And I need to tell you that this took a lot of organization of which I was one of the major components.

We decided that we would want to contact every household in Edgewater. We would take two Sundays in a row to solicit to visit and solicit certain opinions about what they thought about Edgewater. I don’t even remember the questions we asked. But I remember that at the first meeting we had a couple of hundred volunteers from the churches in the synagogue who agreed to go out and question everybody. And we got some help from Garrett. At that time they were very interested in it. And I started teaching there.

In fact I’m still teaching there now. Every week I have a class for this semester that I’m teaching I’m teaching there 55 years. The only member of the faculty that has ever taught that long.

So, Garrett helped us to send crews to do the community work. And I tell you, we then came to the conclusion that we could not make a good religious census just on the basis of Protestant and Jews and we found that there were three parishes St. Gertrude’s, St. Ita’s and St. Gregory’s. We contacted their priests and they became interested and as a result of that we worked together. The first time I guess anywhere in Chicago a group of Protestants, Jews and Catholics clergy work together and it worked so well that after we were finished with this census we decided to stick together and ECRA became an organization of Rabbi, Protestant and Catholic ministers and priests and I think we may have been the first certainly in Chicago, maybe in the country. For all I know. This effort of visiting every home proved to be both enormously interesting and invigorating.

We really felt we had a mission and a purpose to be. The chairman of ECRA could be a Msgr. or a priest. So we were always non interdenominational really when I think back about it. It was really daring. It was novel. We had no parent to follow. We had no advisers to tell us what not to do. We made our own mistakes we had to make some of course. And eventually we found that what we had originally intended, namely to talk about theological issues was maybe sometimes too tender and too possibly divisive.

So we broadened our perspectives into the community as a whole. In fact, even before we had made that census and again I don’t know who brought it up it may have been… I don’t know. I don’t want to take any credit for something that I can definitely document but there was clearly someone in the organization. It may have been I don’t remember what we ought to do is organize Edgewater. The whole community, business interests, there were lots of people here who were retired. We knew somebody would was the head of the library system of Chicago was living here.

So we realized that we had all the kinds of talent in the community to help with the community to get organize and create an idea of what Edgewater could be. Not just as a political or geographic phenomenon, but something that had a sense of its own identity. In in fact, we thought this effective and helpful and would lead to a better community.

And so we started something called the Edgewater Community Council. Again I think I was the first vice president. Never got to the presidency. But again, this president Rev. Pomeroy. He and I were the best buddies.

I can tell you that one time. This… It has nothing to do with anything. There had been such trouble at Senn, racial trouble that Pomeroy heard that there was about to be a real battle going on. And he said, “Would you come along? I think maybe we can do something.” So I… so I went and he and I stood between the two groups that were ready to really battle with each other with fist fights. And they had knives and such. Also, we were able to calm Senn down that particular time in the morning.

That was also one of the first Lutheran churches I was invited to speak in. That was one of the things that happened. Many of the ministers invited me to come and preach in their services. I really appreciate being given this opportunity to think about something in my early rabbinate in Chicago, especially in Edgewater. That I had never examined that way.

But I know we created a different atmosphere. We got to know each other. The often traditional prejudices became untenable. Especially when this young Rabbi came and spoke in the church. You couldn’t be quite as ready to consider all Jews to be the devil’s spawn because you met one Jew that was not to be categorized as devilish or something like that.

Anyhow, I think that the creation of ECRA and the Edgewater Community Council, which fell into my early years of being the Rabbi at Emanuel really helped consolidate the community, develop a new awareness of Edgewater as a entity and I think really it had something to do with the development of the community it became different.

People began talking about Edgewater is a very desirable place to which the come. And we were always and I really want to make a point of this because you now you give me the opportunity. We became immediately aware of the fact that we had the preconditions of racial trouble in the Edgewater just like anyplace else. And we felt that we needed to take advantage of the necessary and God-given opportunities to try to forestall it and create a sense in Edgewater that racial prejudice and consequential ideas and actions would not be part of our texture.

DN: Edgewater is a very diverse community. You identified this diversity. Now you’re identifying ways of diversity. What I’m getting from this interview is that your efforts started for religious purpose to build community among the diversity had a far greater impact over shaping the character of Edgewater as an entity. Could you talk about that a little bit more.

HS: I think that also happen to many of the ministers who perhaps had a much narrower view of their position as ministers of the of their congregation and that their faith. I think they’ve been became open to the necessity, the opportunity, of being part of a much larger community. That there was something other than just teaching gospel. Whatever the Roman Catholics were doing in their schools and their services. That there were issues of humanity, of community, that were worth getting and that were actually part of their religious understanding of life. And therefore, while they were called the servants of the various congregations. So I really think that it helped the others to also grow. And I have a notion, even though I could not in any way documented but I have a notion that congregations would vote if they had anything to say who their new pastor would be would look for people who had that same orientation because congregations began to enjoy this.

I mean, I have this opinion that is not necessarily provable, but prejudices not necessarily a helpful, attractive component of a human being. So I think that many people are uncomfortable that they had these prejudices. They had been taught these at home, and that there was a possibility here in Edgewater to experience an entirely different style of life.

DN: Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. And certainly other neighborhoods might have diversity. But it would seem that in Edgewater that this religious community that accepted and embraced diversity that was created also reached out to create a community that accepted race diversity. You think that might be a fair characterization of what sets Edgewater off in distinction to other neighborhoods.

HS: There is no question that for instance right to the south of us, Uptown, a young priest from Uptown was quite often participating and Protestant ministers also came to some of our activities and kind of felt that it was something they ought to try. There was sorry it was not happening in their place. I just now remember something that I had forgotten. There were years when on a given Sunday in early summer we would have a whole Sunday set-aside for a joint community celebration. I remember one year. We got the police department to give us a permit to close down Broadway from Granville down to Bryn Mawr. And we had one long table everybody brought food brought handiwork. They brought whatever they wanted to display. It was incredible. It was a festival. I don’t think it’s in existence anymore. I don’t think it lasted through the end of my ministry at Emanuel. It was a huge effort, but it brought the union of every one of these congregations together and they would have meetings to organize to get to know each other taste each others cookies or even major foods. So it was a remarkable. I think we did a few things that were really extraordinary.

RR: We have a photograph. Somebody got up on a ladder and took a photograph of Broadway for that event. And they called it the longest picnic table in the world.

HS: And we had literally thousands of people coming out and he enjoyed being part of a community. They danced to music with each other. They got to know each other. Oh you live downstairs to mere oh you live across the street. It was really a community builder.

RR: You’re talking about food. The community efforts that ECRA had one was starting Care for Real, the food people. Now it is so big now. It’s so much bigger than it ever was when I was with the community project. I understand that was a direct result of the efforts of ECRA.

HS: I’m glad you mentioned that because I would’ve forgotten that. But that was really one more thing that I was very much involved in conceiving then in organizing and supporting and to this day I sent in donations and I know my congregation is continuously sending food and clothing there. It’s become part of being Edgewater ECRA. I think they’ve had an enormous increase, time will tell, of course. I know they’re working very hard. I’ve met the director from time to time they come to visit with me and so on. Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that because again I I’m not usually very much interested in talking about myself. It is very, very good for me to have this kind of conversation.

RR: Now talking about Care for Real. I think part of what you’re saying about the community becoming accepting they moved as you know, because they were getting so big. And they moved into high-rise on Sheridan Road. And quite frankly, some were fearful that Sheridan Road might object to having care for real clients coming into their territory. But they did not. And it turns out that the people in those buildings have become very accepting. They volunteer to help. They are in neck concourse between the Breakers and the other high-rises there in that concourse by the Breakers. And it’s interesting because some of this we were really worried there might be a community reaction, but there wasn’t.

HS: This is an indication of one of the components of this kind of work. That the assumptions are usually much less that the actual reality that we find when we get to it. People are in other words much more ready for this kind of approach, for this kind of engagement them. We usually assume. We usually assume much worse of our neighbors and end of our own selves them. What we are really capable of doing so we eventually do find a purpose for our lives.

RR: One other thing about ECRA. As you know they changed their name. There’s still ECRA, however it’s now called the Edgewater Community Religious Association. And there are now two mosques that participate.

HS: I still remember when the first mosque came in to Edgewater. I still remember that. I still remember that people were in shock. There was no question. Even the religious community, the ECRA, that have been together, some of them have been together for 8 to 10 years. They didn’t know what to do. And I remember the conversations. Some of us said there’s no difference between a Baptist and the Syrian Muslim. And for that matter, an Orthodox Jew. And so eventually I guess the very impulse that had never re-created but permeated ECRA won out. And I know that there are Muslim goods and they have no clergy. And particularly there is one on Broadway that has been a dominant participant in everything that ECRA does. For instance, I still remember when. Oh and that’s another thing common worship in Thanksgiving. Oh, what a breakthrough that was, and it took a while that did not go is easily as some of the other things we did. But also it is still going on to this day.

RR: And it’s so accepted in the community, now. And the temple over here, I mean the mosque hosted this last year and the huge, huge, crowd, hundreds of people.

HS: I remember the first one we had at Emanuel. They were simply overwhelmed by the number of people that came and participated and of course there was a trans denominational liturgy that was prepared. So yeah, I must say I really appreciate you giving me the chance to unpack like that because I had never thought about those years. I was rather concentrating, this is nothing to do with you, on a book, a friend of mine is now publishing on me that’s coming out. maybe this month, which covered more or less 8, 10, 12 years of my life. Because I’m loath to talk about myself. I’ve never done that. I don’t do that in my family. I don’t do it anywhere. So it’s a strange exercise for me right now. You’re asking me to try to dig back in memory.

DN: But what you’re talking about is less about yourself and more about connecting making the connections with other people and bringing everybody together. To create community.

HS: I really think that that was one of the things that also kind of a pattern for other communities and eventually it became well it’s no secret that I had no better friend than Joseph [Cardinal] Bernadin. Joseph Bernadin was my best friend. When he was dying he called me to his private quarters downtown. He called up and said I want to talk to you. So, as I did on other occasions, I came. He told me about his death, that it was imminent and how we felt about it. We talked about a lot of things. I’ve never communicated. I’ve never shared it with anybody. But then when he was flown to Rome to say goodbye to the Pope, on the plane back he outlined down to the smallest detail about his funeral after he died. So I got a call from Murphy’s priests, saying the Cardinal wants you to participate in the mass. In the history of humanity that has never happened. Never happened. It was so startling to me that I’ve got to take time to think about it because rabbis don’t go into churches. Traditional rabbis would not cross the threshold let alone sent during the service there. In an international cathedral in such an event, as prominent a cardinal as Bernadin was, for me to follow his written instructions, that on the second afternoon of his lying in state, I had to conduct the service of the… community, to this day. I shudder when I think about. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. I did it finally to take care of it for a friend. But, it was an indication of the fact that it had something to do with Edgewater, that the work I had done here in Edgewater had come to the attention of people far beyond Edgewater. Certainly, the diocese downtown knew, even Cardinal Cody, who had invited me at one time come down to talk to him, knew that we were doing things… that we had been doing things in Edgewater that had not been done in so Chicago or anywhere that he knew. So, the impact of what Edgewater was doing exceeded the confines of this community. And that is something that only began to dawn on me as we talked. Because, again, I have so very little self evaluating in these things.

DN: I am personally trying to put the uniqueness of Edgewater, the collective spirit here over the past 45-50 years of this community into a broader context. You have any thoughts on that, Rabbi? Your mind is so sharp. How it fits into the context of history?

HS: We were beset by the same problems that Chicago as a whole had we were no exception, and we were not a privileged enclave in it which nothing happened. Practically, we had some of the very ugly matters also occurring in the fringes of the community that happen sometimes, because Edgewater is of course a mobile community. People move in. They had no idea what was expected of them and they brought with them their mode of behavior that they had from wherever they had grown up before. So we had a lot of trouble, and of course in the point of view, the schools in particular there were many problems and I’m sure they haven’t installed yet. I know I went to Goudy a number of times to speak to classes and to the faculty there on number of occasions. And the reason was that they felt that there could be some benefit from an outsider like me with a very good reputation that kind of came with it to talk about what I had done in the community, it would be helpful to creating a different kind of attitude in the school. So, I’m just saying to you, I think what I would now some of this being the effect of this kind of effort – we did what we did because it was what you were supposed to do, help create an expectation for a much better life, a much higher attention to values than you ordinarily see. If you just say I’m moving in Edgewater. They have an acceptable property available for me or is close to my work or it’s cheap enough for me to afford it. So I think that what may well it happened in the community for a while anyways. And I don’t know who would be better knowing than I, maybe it’s created something that uptown or Rogers Park don’t have. I know I got involved with Loyola University in trying to do something for Rogers Park. I think we helped create a citizens Association and I know we used to have meetings at Loyola University on a regular basis trying to somehow transmit what was happening here into the working conditions of life north of us.

DN: Rabbi I think that you have really captured, maybe not captured, but helped me on forming an answer to the question, “What is special about Edgewater?” And we talked about that for a while and it seems that you created a model of community within diversity by embracing diversity, binding to the diverse needs of the community. Somehow you created a working model that you can transmit to other communities.

HS: We found out that diversity is not a problem. It’s actually a great asset. You sample different kinds of people’s expectations, lifestyles, sometimes even the way they eat the way they dress the way they walk and sing and whatever moves them. And I think that this is somehow in all of us. Creating a sense of well-being, security. There were times when I thought certain things could not happen in Edgewater. Like, sneak attacks on people that walk the streets. I still like to think so. I don’t know. I’m not down in the streets, so I’m not part of the atmosphere. But I would still like to think of all the streets in Chicago Edgewater is safer than most of the neighborhoods in Chicago.

DN: In fact, you’re correct about that. Edgewater is the safest community in Chicago. And I think part of that effort you created the community. You touch that spark of joy or God inside you and make the connection with another person. Whatever surrounds them in diversity there is that spark you connect with.

RR: And related to that is that when we do have crimes, and we’ve had some bad crimes in the last few years, is almost always somebody who is not from Edgewater. In other words, these are generally people who come to Edgewater to commit their crime and then go somewhere else. It’s not people from Edgewater who are committing those crimes. So, that may be part of this model. You know, it’s not the Edgewater folks who are committing the crime. So I think that’s a good thing. But we still do have crime; it’s an issue. The drug trade is a very real problem. It’s a very real problem.

DN: I’d like to finish up the interview with the two questions that I mentioned earlier. “What do you see as your most important, the happiest personal achievement in your life so far?”

HS: I would think the one thing I helped create the union of congregations. A unique place. Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I was able to sell the idea of a camp to sum up my important lay people as a union of congregations for which I was called to Chicago for six years. That camp was a year-round facility because I founded it that way and raise the funds for that way. All of that. It helps produce young people and adults who are deeply committed to the finest values that I know Judaism can teach. We have had literally thousands, if not, maybe hundreds coming out of that camp. You know the union nationally, internationally, because it includes Canada, has now 14 or 15 such camps. It has become the very lifeblood of the future hope of this denominational body in the religious panoply of America. And to this day I think of that as the one piece of work that will survive me, and that will continue to do beneficial work for the future of not just reformed Judaism but really of the world in which we live. Because it’s not self-contained. It’s intended to be outgoing outreaching. There was a group of 38 youngsters when I started the camp in 1952. I’m still on the board I don’t go to the board meetings any longer. It’s a little difficult for me to go someplace and you know, park the car. But I know from what I read in the in the minutes in 2012, we had 1200 youngsters in the 10 weeks of camp was in the summer and the weekends are taken so far in advance that if you don’t make a reservation three years in advance, you won’t get a free weekend up there. It’s become so much of the fiber, texture of what people expect when you join the congregation. The people encourage to go to the camp in the summer. So if you ask me what for me personally is the most lasting and satisfying of my rabbinate that would be it. But you can also when you go out and look at that booklet there, which is from the University of Chicago, it has just established six months ago a program in Jerusalem that a former student of mine had financed, which is named after my wife and me so that our names are now throughout the year associated with the University of Chicago. At least a naming plaque. The camp. I think is more than that. Still, many people that are on the board are products of my own life because that…every year, every summer I followed the camp every year until two years ago.

DN: So it’s like having a big extended family where your great-grandchildren will produce even more.

HS: Everywhere I go somebody would say thank you for having founded that camp. I was there or my grandchildren were there.

DN: And the last question I would ask you. I don’t want to tire you out. You’re such a fascinating person we could talk a long time. What advice would you give to young people?

HS: First of all, try to find out what is the single most important value that you cherish into which you are willing to devote a good deal of your life to accomplish. And then I would say become single-minded in the service of those values. Because it is only when these fundamental issues of the right life are cherished and implemented that the human project has a chance of I wouldn’t call it succeeding but unfolding.

DN: At this time I’m going to conclude the interview with you, Rabbi.