Rabbi Walter Jacob honored by Missouri high school as famous graduate
His family fled Germany in 1939 after his father was detained in the Dachau concentration camp. After stops in London and New York, they settled in southwest Missouri.
“We were the only kids (at Jarrett) who left Europe and escaped the Nazis,” said Rabbi Walter Jacob, 80. “The teachers of all the social studies classes asked me to come in and talk.”
Jacob went on to graduate from Springfield High School, now Central High School, in 1947. Three years later, he graduated from Drury University.
The scholar and prolific author is president of the Institute for Progressive Jewish Law and Ethics. He is the founding president of a rabbinic seminary that, in 2008, ordained the first rabbis in Germany since the Holocaust.
Jacob was inducted Oct. 28 into the Springfield Public Schools Hall of Fame along with former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and beverage company CEO Larry D. Young.
A plaque honoring Jacob was dedicated at Central. Similar plaques for Ashcroft and Young, both Hillcrest High graduates, will be scheduled.
The Hall of Fame was created to celebrate top graduates. There were more than 30 nominees for the inaugural induction and three were selected.
Superintendent Norm Ridder said all three are deserving of recognition. “We need to really bring forward what I would call role models — heroes,” he said, praising Jacob. “We want to thank you for your life.”
Jacob is descended from 15 generations of rabbis. He came to Springfield at age 11 when his father accepted the rabbi position at the Reform synagogue.
Jacob, who is rabbi emeritus at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, visited the Ozarks with his wife, Irene, of 53 years. They were also back in 1997 for the 50th anniversary of Jacob’s graduating class.
“There were a couple of teachers who were especially good and I remember their names,” he said. “This is a good system and one shouldn’t underrate it.”
At Ridder’s urging, Jacob discussed his role in re-establishing Reform Judaism in Germany. He also championed the creation of a home for disabled children in Pennsylvania.
“If you’re enthusiastic and you push hard enough, it really doesn’t matter who opposes you,” Jacob said to the nearby teenagers. “If you keep going with that … you’ll get your way.”
He is the author, editor or translator of 39 books and numerous essays.
Jacob enjoyed growing up in Springfield, a friendly place with “a lot of opportunities.” Plus, the diversity that Central celebrates now was evident in 1947.
“There were three commencement speakers and two of us were Jewish,” he said.
Central student leaders Kiefer Mecham and Lillian Stone were excited to meet Jacob and give the couple a tour of the school.
“It definitely gives you a sense of pride,” said Stone, 16. “He’s part of our diverse community and he’s so accomplished.”
Asked what the SPS Hall of Fame induction meant, Jacob grew quiet. “It’s a great surprise to even be remembered by anyone.”