Rabbi Herman Schaalman, a longtime leader in the Reform movement, died Wednesday at the age of 100.
In 1952, Schaalman founded and became the first director of the URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin, the first of the URJ camps. There are now 18 URJ camps across the country, making it the largest Jewish camping program in the world. As an alumna of URJ camp GUCI (the other URJ camp in the Midwest) myself, I can personally attest to movement’s power to strengthen Jewish connection and identity.
Schaalman was among five young men selected by the influential German Rabbi Leo Baeck to come to the United States in 1935 for a rabbinical school scholarship at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He received smicha in 1941 and spent his career in the Midwest, serving a small congregation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before moving to Chicago and becoming the Midwest regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, later renamed the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). In 1956, he became a senior rabbi at Emanuel Congregation in Chicago, a pulpit he held for 30 years. He continued to be affiliated with the congregation as an educator even after his retirement.
The day after his ordination in 1941, reported JTA, Schaalman married his wife, Lotte. They were together for 76 years, and she died last month.
Despite facing anti-Semitism from peers who had been indoctrinated by rising Nazism, Schaalman established close relationships with Christian communities in Chicago, teaching at both Catholic and Protestant seminaries. The number of clergymen who remember him fondly is a testament to the depth of his interfaith work. He was a crucial figure in Chicago’s interfaith scene and received numerous awards from both Jewish and interfaith organizations.
In his work on various committees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), of which he was briefly president as well, he helped solidify the Reform Movement’s positions on contentious issues such as patrilineal descent and interfaith marriage. His legacy is one of inclusion and innovation.
Below, watch him discuss his journey to become a rabbi and his crisis of faith after the Holocaust: