Numerous studies have revealed the centrality of emotion — oftentimes at the expense of pragmatism — in human psychology. Recently, researchers have also sought to examine how emotions play a part in other facets of society, including politics.
Those findings should perhaps be unsurprising to many, given the appeal of empathy and reassurance over hard truths and complex solutions. It seems at times, though, there exist only two extremes: an emotionless, highly technocratic approach or a spiritual-like fervor impervious to changing norms.
Throughout his life, Rabbi Walter Jacob, 88, the longtime spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom Congregation, has been supremely successful in his ability to straddle the line between those two sides. He has extolled — and practiced — the benefits of individual piety, while criticizing unwarranted idealism; he has regarded as vital the community’s spiritual connection to the past, while at the same time addressing the exigencies of maintaining a bustling hub for Jewish life in a modern American age.
That is the takeaway from author Eric Lidji’s new biography, “The Seventeenth Generation: The Lifework of Rabbi Walter Jacob.” The book was highlighted at an event at Rodef Shalom on July 10.
“We might be celebrating the 17th generation in one sense, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Rabbi Jacob has been the rabbi for five generations of Strassburgers.”
During his time as senior rabbi, Jacob embraced the surrounding community, including those of different persuasions, working constructively — and ultimately succeeding in many instances — to bend the arc of history in the direction of compassion, equality and justice. From his overtures toward a previously averse Catholic establishment to his persistence with city officials on behalf of the intellectually disabled, Jacob found that engagement, as opposed to intransigence, proved the most fruitful method of achieving the congregation’s goals.
In the 1970s and 1980s, as the balkanization of politics and society intensified, Jacob remained steadfastly committed to compromise and understanding. He constantly sought middle ground, whether on Israel or local issues, always remaining calm and judicious.
While refusing to concede on certain matters about which he felt most strongly, Jacob respected the entrenched opposition to his proposals from some in the congregation, often going the route of gradual change rather than grand symbolic pronouncements to accomplish his aims.
In an increasingly fast-paced world in which deep devotion to a craft became more unusual, Jacob was in it for the long haul, a scholar who demonstrated remarkable passion for grasping the intricacies of Jewish law. As chair of the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, his opinions on questions of Jewish law influenced rabbis and laity around the country, helping to shape the future of the Reform movement in the United States.
And taking the helm of the city’s largest and oldest Reform congregation at a time when the centrality of the synagogue in the lives of ordinary Jews appeared to be waning and contemporary trends in the American Jewish community — increasing secularity and youth disillusionment, among others — had only just begun, Jacob adapted to these trends, adding services for families with young children, among other programming changes.
“He takes something that he’s given, he adjusts it to the nature of the times and his own skills, and then he allows it to continue,” Lidji said at the event.
Lidji’s book recounts Jacob’s captivating life story, elucidating the many ways in which his ancestry (15 generations of whom were rabbis), and own childhood (which included a harrowing escape from Nazi Germany) shaped his outlook on life and allowed him to confer his kindness and scholarship onto others.
As a child growing up in the residential wing of a historic synagogue in Augsburg, Germany, Jacob was imbued with the religious values he would later go on to preach. Though his mother, Annette, shielded him from many of the horrors of the Nazis, his lived experience in Germany would influence his outlook on the rabbinate and ultimately strengthen his connection to European Jewry.
Though he has long felt a deep bond to Jews who lost families members in the Holocaust, Jacob believed that sorrow and mourning was not enough. Upon returning to Germany and observing the absence of even a single rabbinical seminary, he established one, designed specifically for prospective Reform rabbis who had previously traveled as far as the United States to find a high-quality rabbinical education. Abraham Geiger Kolleg, the culmination of that effort, has ordained dozens of rabbis since its inception in 1999.
Jacob is cerebral yet deliberate, conservative yet ambitious, an independent pioneer who has also understood the benefits of collective action. More than 20 years after he stepped down as the senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation, he continues to serve as a beacon to countless Jews and non-Jews around the world.
The book can be purchased at Rodef Shalom or online or at rodefshalom.org/17gen. PJC
Jonah Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.