There is no way to predict how the course of a rabbinic career will play out, said Rabbi Walter Jacob, sitting in his office surrounded by copious volumes of books while brushing the dirt off his pants following an afternoon spent tending Rodef Shalom’s Biblical Botanical Garden.
“It has been interesting, and it has been varied through the years,” said Jacob.
At 86, Jacob has a generous and gentle sophistication about him, best described by his biographer, Eric Lidji, as an “aura.”
That Jacob’s career has been “interesting” and “varied” is a modest understatement, typical of the rabbi emeritus of Rodef Shalom, a spiritual leader of the congregation for more than six decades. It is for the impact of his numerous contributions to the local and international Jewish community, as well as the community at large, that he will be honored as the 2016 Pursuer of Peace at Rodef Shalom on June 5.
“I think other people ought to be honored,” said Jacob of the award, which is presented every two years to a person who has built a body of good works in the pursuit of peace. Jacob will be the fourth recipient of the award, which was previously bestowed upon Bishop David A. Zubik (2010), William E. Strickland (2012), and Fred Rogers (posthumously in 2014). Jacob will be the first Jewish recipient of the honor.
There is no one who is more deserving, according to Eric Shaffer, president of the congregation.
“Rabbi Jacob has had a lifetime of service to the congregation, the Jewish community of Western Pennsylvania and world Jewry,” Shaffer said. “He embodies what the Pursuer of Peace award was designed to recognize.”
His contributions range from founding the first group home in Western Pennsylvania for people with disabilities, authoring numerous Reform responsa as chair of the Central Conference of American Rabbis responsa committee and establishing the Abraham Geiger College in Germany, the first post-Holocaust rabbinical seminary in Europe.
Jacob comes from a long line of rabbis — 16 generations. His grandfather, Benno Jacob was a renowned biblical scholar, and his father Ernst was a district rabbi in Augsburg, Germany. During Kristallnacht in 1938, the synagogue where his father served was set fire by the Nazis, and soon afterward the Jacob family immigrated to the United States. They settled in Springfield, Mo., with Jacob earning his bachelor’s degree from Springfield’s Drury College in 1950. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1955 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
Following ordination, Jacob came to Pittsburgh to serve temporarily at Rodef Shalom under the guidance of Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof. Jacob left Rodef Shalom for two years, during which he served as an Air Force chaplain in the Philippines, but then returned to the congregation permanently. Jacob succeeded Freehof as Rodef Shalom’s senior rabbi in 1966, and held this position until his retirement in 1996. He has since served Rodef Shalom as its rabbi emeritus and senior scholar.
As Rodef Shalom was chartered in 1856, “Rabbi Jacob has been there more than one-third of its existence,” observed Lidji. “Rabbi Jacob has had the longest association with Rodef Shalom of any rabbi in history.”
But because of Jacob’s humility, “you’d never know that unless you do the math,” Lidji added.
Lidji was commissioned by Rodef Shalom to prepare a biography of Jacob and began doing his research in January 2015. In addition to a series of interviews with Jacob and his colleagues, Lidji has examined the contents of more than 75 boxes of archives, mostly correspondence with congregants and other rabbis, sermons and responsa.
“He’s a very modest person,” Lidji said of Jacob. “What you see in public is identical to what you see in private.”
Beginning at a young age, Jacob always had a wide variety of interests, as well as the passion to take action when duty called, such as founding a group home for the disabled.
“We had a severely handicapped child, and we found nothing available to take care of her when she grew up,” Jacob said. “So we [he and his late wife, Irene] worked with some people on a group home. These things don’t happen by themselves.”
Despite a lot of opposition, the Jacobs were able to launch Horizon Home, which is still going strong under a new name — Mainstay Life Services — 50 years later. There are now about 20 affiliated facilities across the county.
Founding Horizon Home, Jacob said, “was a good lesson in a lot of ways. Sometimes you find yourself doing things that you didn’t think you’d be doing. All through the years, I have tried — if interesting things came along — to say, ‘yes,’ even if it seems unlikely.”
Such was the case with his founding of the Abraham Geiger College in Germany, the country that he fled 60 years earlier.
“There was an obvious need, and there were people who said, ‘yes, it needs to be done, but it can’t be done,’” Jacob recalled.
Naysayers told him and his colleague, German Rabbi Walter Homolka, that the German Jewish community was too small, and that there would be no financial support for the seminary. Even the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism told Jacob that it was “a nice idea, but it’s never going to happen,” Jacob said.
“I told her, ‘You don’t know the two of us,’” he said.
After five years of “wandering around North America getting people interested,” Jacob was able to muster enough support to effectively re-establish a strong Jewish presence in Germany through the seminary, which is now largely funded by the German government. In recognition of the support of the German government, the college presented Chancellor Angela Merkel with the Abraham Geiger Award last year.
Another accomplishment of which Jacob is particularly proud is having authored about 500 religious responsa over the course of 16 years, which he described as “interesting, enjoyable and a good bit of work.”
Jacob, though, thought it was important to get more voices involved in examining issues relevant to contemporary Jews, and in 1989, he founded the Freehof Institute for Progressive Halakah, which publishes an annual volume of essays on Jewish law. The essays are authored by a variety of rabbis.
“It is an effort to get a much larger group of rabbis seriously involved in halachic questions,” Jacob said, adding that the volumes are now being digitized. “There are no final answers to any of these questions, but at least we have a stimulus in that direction.”
An additional endeavor near and dear to his heart is the Biblical Botanical Garden, which was first conceptualized by his wife.
“It was a crazy idea,” Jacob said. “A biblical botanical garden in Pittsburgh — not in Florida, not in Arizona. But it’s worked. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the Biblical Garden. We were both involved in that.”
As Jacob reflected on his career, it was these extra-congregational responsibilities that have made his life interesting, he said.
“The congregation is the base for all this, but doing that only, for me, would not have been enough,” Jacob explained.
He has no intention of slowing down, he said, and is even open to taking on something new.
“If something interesting comes along, why not say ‘yes’,” he said.
It is one of Jacob’s most noteworthy traits that he is always looking ahead, according to Lidji.
“He often says that the future is more important than the past,” Lidji said. “He only looks at the past to give him a sense of where to go.”
There is “no one more deserving” of the Pursuer of Peace award than Jacob, said Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom.
“When we first conceived of this award, we had in mind persons who dedicate their lives to improving the lives of people around them,” Bisno said. “Numerous families have been touched by the gentleness, guidance and wisdom of Walter Jacob. And communities far beyond our own have been touched because of his work on national Jewish issues.
“This is our congregation’s opportunity to honor a man who has given more than six decades of his life to caring, comforting and guiding this community.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.