Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman, our beloved Rabbinic Scholar-in-Residence, died in Chicago on January 31 at the age of 100. He joined his beloved Lotte in the everlasting peace of the world to come just two weeks and two days after her death. I was one of several people who offered eulogies at the funeral at Emanuel of Chicago. Here are the words I offered:
It was always a marvel to see and to hear. When our rabbi, Herman Schaalman, would approach the lectern, the amud—he would put his watch down on it (with the only concession to age, I think, one with bigger hands)— and he would begin to speak—eloquently, to the point, without notes, truth be told, not even in his native tongue. And, in that marvel of a life he lived, we learned so very much from him. The Rabbis teach in Pirke Avot, in the Sayings of our Ancestors, that ethical tractate of the Mishna, “Aseh lecha rav—make of yourself a teacher.” How—they continue—“kenah lecha haver—by gaining for yourself a friend.” And then they conclude, “Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’caf z’chut—judge everything in the pan, the scale, of justice.” For just about every one of us, Herman Schaalman was our rav, our rabbi, our teacher; for so many of us, he was also our friend. And he became so because he knew how to treat each of us favorably, with kindness, with passion yet with humility, and with deep loyalty yet ever understanding of how to work with differences, ever seeking justice and balance. And the presence here of so many whose lives Herman touched—in fact, the presence here of so many of us Rabbi Herman Schaalman taught- -speaks far more eloquently in tribute to him than any words I can find in my notes.
Rabbi Schaalman became my teacher for the first time 45 years ago last month; several times each month during the winter of 1972, he would make the almost 100 mile drive from Chicago to Beloit College to teach a course on Modern Jewish History. His intellect and eloquence captured the entire class—several of us so profoundly that, ultimately, we chose to devote our lives to the Jewish people. I still remember hitching a ride back to Chicago one evening after class in his Thunderbird with him and with his son. Little did I know back then that rabbis could drive Thunderbirds—and drive them so fast. Yet think of how Herman Schaalman engaged us as our teacher—through his Shabbat morning Torah study over the decades; with his congregants on their New Year’s retreats at camp; in college and seminary classes; as, in more recent years, he told his story.
So let me be personal for one more time. Upon my ordination, Rabbi Schaalman encouraged me to come to Chicago, to Skokie, to work with his colleague and friend, Rabbi Karl Weiner, at Temple Judea Mizpah. From both of them, I learned of the importance of Torah l’shema, of studying Torah simply for the love of studying Torah, in hevruta. The two of them would gather every Thursday (as I remember) to learn together. He encouraged me to do the same— and the study group he encouraged me to begin with several other colleagues continues to this day. For the text can really only exist in relationship— and that is also where we can find God, asking questions of us. Congregants and colleagues, students and seminarians, folks from different faith communities—Rabbi Schaalman was our teacher, Herman Schaalman became our friend. In his search, he helped to bring us all closer together.
And how so many of us were privileged to work with and learn with Rabbi Schaalman at Olin-Sang-Ruby. His vision came from a Methodist summer camp in Clear Lake, Iowa, and he transplanted it to Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. He wanted to build warm and loving Jewish memories as kids grew up at camp summer after summer. And he transmitted that love of camp to all of us. What joy it was to watch Herman teach at camp. His passion for Torah was palpable—as was, truth also be told, his passion for tennis. He devoted that passion for years to Avodah Corps, to OSRUI’s work/study program for high school seniors. I often quietly walked into the sifriyah, the library, where he engaged the kids so I, too, could learn. He was still coming up to camp in his 90s, even allowing himself to “climb” to the top of the 50’ Alpine Tower to look over the camp he founded in 1952. Yet Herman Schaalman was not only a rabbi to the campers and counselors; he was also the rav to so many of us privileged to be with him on faculty. He was the rabbis’ rabbi at camp.
To you, Michael and Susan, thank you for sharing your father with me, with all of us, no matter how much your mother, his beloved Lotte, so fiercely tried to protect him as, just as fiercely, she was his helpmate. Michael and Roberta, you were even kind enough to share him with our congregation in Milwaukee when he visited you, giving all of us a chance to have a teacher become a beloved friend. It also gave him a chance to practice his High Holy sermon on Rosh Hashana with Emanu-El in Milwaukee before he shared the final presentation with you here at Emanu-el in Chicago. Herman Schaalman was our rav, our rabbi, our teacher; he became our haver, our friend.
From you, our rabbi, we learned Torah; through you, our friend, we also learned how to take that Torah and live—in spite of the questions, because of the questions.