Last month we traced the early life of Rav Shimon Schwab – his intense focus on Talmud Torah, his studies in the Lithuanian yeshivas of Telshe and Mir, and his first rabbinical positions in Germany. Under increasing threat from the Nazis, Rav Schwab was desperate to leave Germany and find a new rabbinical position.
The following is from an article titled “Memories of Shearith Israel,” written in December 2000 by Rabbi Moshe Schwab, Rav Schwab’s eldest son. I have edited and modified it somewhat, and he has kindly given me permission to share it here.
During 1936, with Nazi anti-Semitism growing daily in Germany, my father – who was then the betzirksrabbiner, or district rabbi, of Ichenhausen in Bavaria, Germany – was especially targeted by the local Hitler Youth thugs for persecution, and he knew he must leave Germany as soon as possible at the peril of his life.
During the early part of the summer of 1936, my father met in Zurich with Rabbi Leo Jung, zt”l, of New York and asked his help in obtaining a rabbinical position in America.
Rabbi Jung told my father that he had read his book, Heimkehr ins Judentum, which was published the year before, and that based on the views expressed in that book there would be only one suitable rabbinical position for him in America, that of Shearith Israel in Baltimore, which position happened to be vacant since the passing of Rabbi Dr. Schepsel Schaffer, who died in 1933.
Rabbi Jung advised my father to contact his friend Mr. Nathan Adler, who was one of the most influential leaders of the congregation, and who happened to be a distant relative of my father, to apply for the position.
Congregation Shearith Israel resulted from the breakup in the late 19th century of the Green Street Shul of downtown Baltimore into two distinct congregations. The more liberal group formed the Chizuk Emunah Congregation, which was known as the Friedenwald Shul because it was led by Dr. Aaron Friedenwald, and the other, more traditional group, formed Shearith Israel Congregation, which became known as the Strauss Shul because of the influence of the Strauss-Adler families. Shearith Israel Congregation for many years was located on McColloh Street, near North Avenue.
The North Avenue neighborhood had begun to change by the early twenties, and several affluent members of Shearith Israel moved “uptown” and settled in the upper Park Heights area of Northwest Baltimore. To accommodate these members, whose numbers were growing, “a suburban branch” of Shearith Israel was built and completed in 1926.
To make a long story short, arrangements were made for my father to come to Baltimore as a candidate for the rabbinical position on Shabbos Parshas Ki Tetze, August 29, 1936. Rabbi Schwab spoke in shul, in labored English, on Shabbos morning, and in the afternoon he gave shiurim in Yiddish for the baalei batim. On Sunday evening he again addressed the congregation in English. Afterward, Rabbi Schwab was told the congregation would have a meeting between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to decide on his candidacy, and my father returned to Ichenhasuen to await the outcome.
On the fourth of Tishrei, September 24, 1936, my father received a telegram that read “Unanimously Elected,” with the signature “Rauneker.” My father’s English was so rudimentary that, while he knew what “elected” meant, he did not understand the meaning of “unanimously,” thinking it had a negative connotation as in ‘un,’ meaning “not.” It was only after he consulted his well-thumbed English-German dictionary that he made the berachah Baruch Hatov v’HaMativ.
To further condense a long story – one filled with nissim – our family (my father, mother, and their three children) arrived in New York on Assarah B’Teves, December 24, 1936. About 10 days later we moved into the house at 3808 Glen Avenue which the congregation had rented for us. My mother was overwhelmed when she found a fully stocked pantry and refrigerator which all had been arranged by the Ladies Auxiliary of Shearith Israel.
Those first few weeks in Baltimore were filled with my parents’ orientation to a new and peaceful world. My father’s days and nights were filled with his new duties as rabbi of an English-speaking congregation, and my mother’s with caring for the children and meetings with the ladies of the congregation. Father spent a great deal of time preparing his Shabbos morning sermons in his newly adopted language – English. I can remember clearly my father telling us children “we are in America now, and the language spoken in our house from now on will be English.”
My father felt it was most important that he become fluent in English. We owe a special debt of gratitude to Miss Grace Blondheim, a”h, who volunteered to help my father with his English speeches, which he read off word by word in those early days. However, within a year my father became quite fluent in English, and slowly but surely he arrived at the point where no longer had to rely on a written English text to deliver his sermons.
He would humorously reminisce about the time his written speech was blown away by a gust of wind from an open window and he was forced to continue without the benefit of a written text. It was then that realized he’d mastered the English language. To further improve his English, my father would listen carefully to President Roosevelt’s speeches on the radio to pick up the nuances of well-spoken English pronunciation.
Rav Ruderman and Rav Neuberger
Almost immediately upon his arrival in Baltimore, my father befriended Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, zt”l, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisrael. He soon became a regular, albeit unpaid, magid shiur there. On Fridays he would give a special Chumash shiur for the whole yeshiva. My father’s close association with Rabbi Ruderman and his very capable menahel, Rabbi Herman Neuberger, zt”l, lasted for the rest of my father’s life – long after he left Baltimore in 1958.
Dissension Over Shabbos Observance
When Rabbi Schwab came to Shearith Israel, he found a very traditional shul, governed by dedicated officers who maintained a strictly Orthodox approach with familiar time-hallowed German minhagim and tefillos. The famed “Roedelheim” siddurim and machzorim were the official texts for the tefillos of the congregation, and the Shulchan Aruch was, constitutionally, to be the final arbiter in all questions of Jewish law and practice.
However, all of this was only a beautiful veneer that covered a major problem that had been seething within Shearith Israel for many years before my father came.
The major problem that was thrust upon Rabbi Schwab, almost immediately upon his arrival, was that Shearith Israel had an old statute that limited voting membership only to those who were “Shomrei Shabbos.” All others, while being welcome in the shul, could only be “seat-holders,” with no voting privileges…. Despite the requests of many of the shul’s congregants to liberalize the shul, Nathan Adler, Leon Strauss, and other like-minded officers tenaciously insisted on enforcing the Shomer Shabbos rule, thus effectively blocking any dissenters from changing the shul’s special character as a model of uncompromising Torah-true Orthodoxy….
This festering problem was placed squarely in Rabbi Schwab’s lap for a halachic resolution. Despite great pressure – especially from the “Brotherhood,” a group within the congregation that provided a substantial part of the funds for the budget of the shul –and threats of secession by a majority of the congregants, Rabbi Schwab, after consulting with many rabbis and lay leaders, made the halachic ruling, in 1938, to enforce the old Shemiras Shabbos membership condition of the congregation.
Despite Rabbi Schwab’s best efforts to explain his ruling to the dissenters, and warmly welcoming them to all activities of the congregation – including the then existing Congregational Hebrew School – the great majority of the more liberal-minded congregants seceded from Shearith Israel and formed their own congregation nearby.
While Shearith Israel was left religiously intact, only a small number of congregants remained faithful to the mother shul. New arrivals to the neighborhood added somewhat to the congregation, and German refugees, who would comprise a strong, strictly observant group within the shul, arrived between 1939 and1941, with more coming after the war, together with many others.