Some of the biographical material upon which this article is based is taken from “Rav Schwab on Prayer,” which was prepared for publication by Rav Schwab’s son, Rabbi Moshe Schwab, and from “Rav Schwab on Chumash, which was prepared by Rabbi Myer J. Schwab, another son of Rav Schwab, for publication. I am indebted to both of them for giving me permission to use this material.
Rabbi Shimon (Simon) Schwab, zt”l, was born on December 30, 1908 (6 Teves 5669) and was nifter on the night of February 13, 1995 (14 Adar I 5755). He was a rav and communal leader in Germany, Baltimore, and Washington Heights. Born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, he attended the Realschule founded by Rav Shimshon Hirsch. This school combined religious and secular studies in the spirit of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy.
From his earliest youth Rav Schwab had a clear and unwavering desire to become a talmid chacham and serve as a rabbi. He had no interest in sports or other extracurricular activities that would not contribute toward his goal. He actually never graduated from the Realschule, which went up to the ninth grade. He did take a few courses given to ninth graders, but at age 14 he left the school to study full time for a number of years in the local Torah Lehranstalt yeshiva founded by Rav Shlomo Breuer.
While his main focus was on Talmud Torah, he also had a keen interest in secular knowledge, especially language, philosophy, history, and science. His famed advanced secular knowledge was all self-taught, the result of his thirst for knowledge, keen intellect, and careful disciplining of his time.
During his yeshiva years, many criticized him for not attending university, predicting that even as a rabbi, he would not amount to much without formal higher secular education – that he would be a verschuettete besamin buechse – “a spilled spice box,” a German Jewish expression for one who had great promise but never developed into anything. But the rav’s single-minded determination proved them wrong.
In 1926, at age 16, he went to Lithuania to study first in the Telshe Yeshiva for three years and then in the Mir Yeshiva for two years, something not at all common for German Jewish young men. After receiving semicha, he returned to Germany where he married Recha Froehlich of Gelsenkirchen. He served first as assistant rabbi in Darmstadt and then as community rabbi in Ichenhausen, Bavaria.
Rav Schwab and his family immigrated to Baltimore in 1936, where he served as rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel until 1958. In 1958 he was invited to join Rabbi Dr. Yoseph Breuer as associate rav of the German-Jewish community in Washington Heights, Khal Adath Jeshurun. This community is widely regarded as the spiritual “continuation” of the prewar Frankfurt kehilla. With Rabbi Breuer’s increasing age and infirmity, Rav Schwab took on many leadership roles.After Rav Breuer was niftar in 1980, Rav Schwab led the community until his passing in 1995.
Serving as a Rav in Germany[i]
“Before leaving the Mirrer Yeshiva, Rav Schwab received semicha, his rabbinical ordination, from the Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, and from Rav Zvi Hirsch Kamai, the rav of Mir, and an approbation from Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski. In May 1931, the young, newly ordained rav took his first rabbinical position, that of Rabbinatsassessor (rabbinical assistant) to Rav Yonah Mertzbach in Darmstadt, Germany.
“On the 11th of Cheshvan 5691, October 22, 1931, the rav married Recha Froehlich of Gelsenkirchen, Germany, the daughter of Abraham and Gutel Froehlich. The young couple, Rav and Rebbetzin Schwab, lived in Darmstadt for two years, where the rav received his early experience in the field of kashrus supervision, as part of his duties as rabbinical assistant.