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Rabbi Mordecai Waxman z”l: Trailblazer in Interfaith Relations

by Rabbi Jonathan Waxman

In the fall of 1937, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago presented himself for consideration to the dean of admissions of the Harvard Law School. The dean pointed out that the semester had already begun. The young man pointed out that he had earned his undergraduate degree in three and a half years and was sure that he would catch up quickly. The dean was as impressed by his chutzpah as by his academic achievement. When the dean did accept him, the young man then asked for financial aid; his father was a professor in Chicago and didn't have the resources to fund a law school education. Apparently, this request, too, was granted.

And then the young man changed his mind, and instead began rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was the law's great loss, but ultimately the rabbinate's gain. But why had he toyed with law school in the first place? His father, a 1913 graduate of the seminary, had served three pulpits within a span of four years and his mother's view was: become a rabbi and see the US of A.

The young man, my father, did travel through much of America but not because he changed pulpits. In fact, aside from his first pulpit after ordination in 1941 – a year in Niagara Falls – he served only one congregation, for 55 years. He died ten years ago, three weeks short of what would have been his formal retirement from Temple Israel of Great Neck, on New York's Long Island.

Mordecai Waxman was born in 1917 in Albany, New York, to the rabbi of Ohav Shalom Congregation, Meyer Waxman, and his wife, Sarah. My grandfather, after leaving the pulpit and obtaining a doctorate from Columbia University, moved to Chicago where he taught at both the College of Jewish Studies (now Spertus) and Hebrew Theological College, an Orthodox seminary.

In 1942, after his ordination from the seminary, my father returned to Chicago where he helped establish Congregation Shaare Tikvah, which still exists. In Chicago he dated Ruth Bilgray, whose family was part of a small coterie of Hebraists in Chicago that included the Waxmans. Though the Bilgrays were members of Anshe Emet and my father's father favored davening at the yeshiva, they were united in their love of Hebrew. My father took Ruth, a classically trained pianist with a PhD in literature from the University of Chicago, to basketball games and double feature movies and somehow still managed to woo her. They were married in December of 1942. Soon called into service as an army chaplain, my father got as far as Fort Dix, New Jersey.

On his discharge he returned to his congregation in Chicago but soon began exploring other options. Youngstown, Ohio, was one; a large, urban congregation had a certain appeal. But both of my parents were taken by the smaller membership and more interesting people of Temple Israel in Great Neck, still meeting in a converted house in a residential neighborhood. That was a fateful decision. Within a short time, the large estates of Great Neck were carved up and the war-time building limitations were lifted. The peninsula became flooded with new housing and many young Jewish couples flowed to this easily accessible suburb of Manhattan. Temple Israel's new neo-colonial building, dedicated in 1949, was soon bursting at the seams.

One of the first challenges my father faced was that of Jewish education for young women. My mother had had an excellent Jewish education, earning a degree from the College of Jewish Studies along with her university degrees. One of his first efforts was to eliminate the Sunday school track for girls; boys and girls at Temple Israel would all have to go to Hebrew school. He introduced the bat mitzvah, albeit on Friday nights when the young women read the haftarah.

Under his watch, in the late 1950s, the “Malitzky minyan” emerged at the youth house, a building adjacent to the synagogue where USY and Hebrew high school programs took place. Supervised by Harold Malitzky, the high school program director, this was an egalitarian service where ten young adults constituted a minyan. Furthermore, both girls and boys were expected to participate equally: girls serving as chazanim, as ba'alot kriah (Torah readers), haftarah readers, and as rabbis, which meant they not only announced pages but had to give sermons. This innovative service was written up a half a century ago in The United Synagogue Review.

It is little wonder then that in the mid ‘70s, as the issue of women's participation began to percolate in the Conservative movement, Temple Israel moved to offer women aliyot. I am sure that there was a lot of lobbying and heated meetings of the ritual committee. To ensure that this change would slide down more easily, my father selected a woman whose Jewish educational credentials were impeccable. My mother would be the first adult woman to chant a haftarah on Shabbat morning, after receiving the maftir aliyah in honor of her birthday. The walls didn't come tumbling down, though I remember a couple of the regulars walking out only to return after she was done. It should not be surprising that in 1983, when the Rabbinical Assembly narrowly rejected admitting Rabbi Beverly Magidson as our first female colleague, both my father and I voted in her favor.

My parents held court every Shabbat afternoon. It was a salon featuring interesting conversation with interesting people – a core of regulars, including Shirley and the late Dr. Marvin Keller, who would in time become mechutanim (my brother David married their daughter Eve), supplemented by people my father invited over during kiddush. It always featured my mother's baked goods. The Shabbat afternoon salon was a tradition my father maintained to the end of his life, even after my mother passed away in 1996.

But my mother contributed much more than her baking skills. She taught at Adelphi and C.W. Post and served as managing editor of Judaism, the scholarly publication of the American Jewish Congress. She worked on The Light, Temple Israel's award-winning publication, and served on the publications committee of the United Synagogue, writing the article marking its 75th anniversary. She was a frequent speaker for Women's League and United Synagogue.

The interesting people in Great Neck included people whom my father encouraged to become involved in United Synagogue, perhaps most notably Jack Stein who would become president. Jack Stein, still with us in his 90s, went on to serve as chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations during the Yom Kippur War.

The Conservative movement formally entered the World Zionist Organization in the late ‘70s thanks to the efforts of my father and Jack Stein, Arthur Levine, then-president of the United Synagogue and another member of Temple Israel, and David Zucker, president of the World Council of Synagogues. I can just picture the four of them in my parents' living room discussing the issue.

In the mid ‘50s my father was selected to edit Tradition and Change. The title – seen as emblematic of the movement's approach to Jewish law and life – was my mother's. The anthology introduced Conservative Judaism's theology and halakhic decisionmaking to the larger community. In time, my father would serve as editor of Conservative Judaism and in the mid-1970s as president of the Rabbinical Assembly. One of his unsung accomplishments was to propose the creation of a Conservative chumash. It would take another quarter of a century, but Etz Hayim did appear in the last year of his life. Later he became president of the World Council of Synagogues, now Masorti Olami, which has named one of its annual awards in his memory.

In 1968, my father was invited to an international conference of religious leaders in India, which stimulated his interest in interfaith relations. He went on to represent the Rabbinical Assembly in this newly emerging area, which began to blossom after the Second Vatican Council, particularly between Catholics and Jews. He served as the chair of the interreligious affairs committee of the Synagogue Council and was an active participant in the International Jewish Committee on Interfaith Consultations (IJCIC).

My father chaired both IJCIC and the Synagogue Council's committee in 1987 when Kurt Waldheim, who had served as Secretary General of the United Nations, was elected president of Austria. When in 1987 it was revealed that Waldheim had concealed his Nazi past, he was declared persona non grata in many parts of the world, including the United States. Nonetheless, Pope John Paul II chose to receive him. The Jewish community was outraged. After a series of behind-the-scenes meetings, it was agreed that when the pontiff visited the United States he would address Jewish leaders. My father was selected to respond and it was the picture in which he seems to be lecturing the pope that appeared around the world. His carefully crafted speech touched on other issues, as well, including the recognition of the State of Israel by the Vatican.

The speech to the pope was just one highlight of my father's lengthy engagement in interfaith dialogue between Jews and the Catholic church, as well as with some of the Protestant and Orthodox churches. His work was on both the national and international stages, with meetings around the globe. Together with William Henry Cardinal Keeler he initiated an on-going semi-annual dialogue with the leadership of the Conference of Bishops in the United States, which still continues under the auspices of the National Council of Synagogues.

As a result of his involvement my father was the first rabbi ever to be knighted by the Catholic Church. In a formal ceremony, held in 1998 in Baltimore and presided over by his friend Cardinal Keeler, he became a knight commander of Saint Gregory the Great. Though he eschewed the costly uniform, his congregation purchased for him the appropriate hat and sword that went with the office.

My father was gifted with an incredible memory, a great blessing in the rabbinate and he could cite at the drop of a kippah widely divergent sources. A colleague once remarked how amazing it was that in the course of a half-hour speech my father sprinkled over two dozen citations ranging from Peanuts to the Talmud. Perhaps one of his favorite biblical passages was: “You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel” (I Samuel 15:17). He took this as a personal challenge, recognizing that he was blessed with the opportunity to represent Judaism and the Jewish world.

In his remarks accepting his knighthood, my father acknowledged that in his 25 years of involvement in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, he had “had a brush with history. There can be no greater privilege than that.” After his death, my brothers and I debated long and hard about what to inscribe on his footstone and we chose the final verse of the Book of Esther. “For Mordecai the Jew…was highly regard by the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brethren; he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his kindred.”

Rabbi Jonathan Waxman has served Conservative congregations in New Jersey and New York and currently is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom of Smithtown, New York. He continues his father's tradition of involvement in interfaith engagement.

 
 
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