Sunday, November 7, 2010

May his memory be for a blessing

It is just shocking to me to think that he was just 27 when he was a principal at the South Bend Hebrew Day School. With the help of my dad, and other businessmen and doctors in the community, he built a Jewish Day School in the city known for Touchdown Jesus, not the 5 books of Moses.  I only knew him as a preschooler and a family friend until I was 22, living in Israel on Otzma, and being hosted by him and his wife for several Shabbat meals in Jerusalem.

He was a big fan of my dad’s and the feeling was mutual. They were two good men along with other good men and women fostering Jewish education in a community that would benefit greatly from it. He had a great laugh and a big smile.  He had three great loves: his family, Jewish education and Israel.

Recently when he reconnected with my brother on Facebook, who was a star pupil in 1982, he quizzed him on the shoreshim (roots) from the Tanakh.  My brother, at age 40, still remembered them and I’m sure Rabbi Schwartz beamed across the ocean as he did when he clicked “like” on half the pictures from my niece’s bat mitzvah a few weeks ago.

Facebook. Such an interesting place. Rabbi Schwartz would reconnect with his students from 30 years prior from South Bend, Indiana. He would see that some became ultra-Orthodox, were liberal Jews married to other Jews, some were in same sex relationships, some were married to gentiles, some were still 34 (or 39-you know who you are) and single. I wondered, as he became friends with all of these people, if he would eventually defriend them because they did not meet his Orthodox standards. On the contrary, he commented on all of our walls when we wrote something he liked or if someone had a birthday or announced the death of a parent or grandparent or the birth of a child. It’s not that I don’t think that he had an opinion on our lifestyles, but what was most important was that we were his students, his now adult children and he was literally virtually apart of our lives again.

Today in my religious school class, my lesson was from Panim and it was about the differences between Tsedek, Tsedakah and Chesed.  In summary,  tsedkah is giving, tsedek is more thoughtful giving and chesed is the giving of your time. Rabbi Schwartz definitely fell into the chesed category. Part of being an Orthodox Jew for him was dedicating his life to teaching Jewish kids from many different backgrounds without judgment of their family lifestyle or overzealous kiruv. He exemplified derech eretz - behaving honorably and because of that his impact was vast.

 In an age when we talk about how to be pluralistic in the Jewish Community, Rabbi Schwartz lived it with his work at small town Day Schools across North America since the 1970s. He made an indelible imprint on my family, as I’m sure he did on so many families during his 40 plus career in education here and in Israel.

I work at a pluralistic Jewish organization that employs and teaches religious, liberal and secular Jews in Israel and the U.S. While my own beliefs are liberal, I feel most comfortable with Jews across the religious spectrum rather than in a place that disavows or embraces one dogma over the other.   I appreciate the beauty of Orthodox Judaism while recognizing that for me, it just isn’t how I want to express my religiosity. However, that appreciation has propelled me to walk to the kotel at 5 a.m. from Har Nof, visit a settlement in the West Bank, hear Hatikva at the Great Synagogue on Yom Kipur while refusing to join even a modern Othodox Synagogue because I am a feminist and support gay rights.

 I don’t know that Rabbi Schwartz would agree with my paradox, but I know he would have been happy to see me and hear about the work that I do on my next trip to Israel in December.  Sadly, he passed away this weekend.  I’m glad he was able to see what we were up to virtually, as well as many of his other students. I’m happy he saw my parents recently in a visit to South Bend, as there was much mutual admiration.

One funny thing is recently I was sent to Rabbi Schwartz’s website as a model for doing a project I’m working on. I was told that he might be a good person with whom to collaborate.

And it made me think, we don’t collaborate with projects, we collaborate with people. In the end, it might matter less how we learn or what we learn, but from whom we learn.

We were all very lucky to be students of Rabbi Schwartz, of blessed memory.

To his wonderful family, May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. 


  • Otzma: one year volunteer program in Israel
  • shoreshim (roots) from the Tanakh- The Tanakh is the Five Books of Moses, the Books of the Prophets, and the Writings of the Minor Prophets. Every Hebrew word has a three letter root. Shalom = slm.  The same is true in Arabic. Salaam- slm. They mean the same thing: peace.
  • Panim - Jewish organization that teaches about social justice among other things
  • kiruv - Jews reaching out to other Jews to introduce them to more traditional aspects of Judaism. Depending on the context and who you are defined whether it is negative or positive.
  • Har Nof- and ultra Orthodox section of Jerusalem
  • kotel- the Western Wall, wall of the Second Temple still remaining
  • Hatikva- Israel's national anthem
  • May the Omnipresent...- traditional words to say to those in mourning. 


Adam McLane said...

This was beautiful, thank you for sharing. Sometimes your view of a parallel universe reveals a lot in my own world.

Ron said...

Everything you wrote was 100%. I especially will miss his greeting me by my Hebrew name Refoel (as he said it). His students from Hillel Torah day School in 1976 adored him, literally. He was our first Gemara teacher, and to this day you can go up to anyone in the class and ask him/her how he translated the word 'Bishlama' - 'It's alright, it's ok, everything is alright, keep cool no sweat'.

Ron said...

Everything you wrote was 100%. I especially will miss his greeting me by my Hebrew name Refoel (as he said it). His students from Hillel Torah day School in 1976 adored him, literally. He was our first Gemara teacher, and to this day you can go up to anyone in the class and ask him/her how he translated the word 'Bishlama' - 'It's alright, it's ok, everything is alright, keep cool no sweat'.

Gail Dowty said...

Thank you for your loving commentary about Rabbi Schwartz. We remember him fondly, not only for how well he treated our children but how he respected our liberal concerns and was able to listen diverse points of view. A good man. Zichrono l'vrachah.

scarpetta said...

More comments about Rabbi Schwartz

Deena Sandock Abraham
I still can't believe that he is gone. So sudden! Even when we were kids, he stood out (at least to me) in how much he truly cared for each individual student.

Rachel Silver Browner
Sharna--really beautiful blog. I am really still stunned. I just saw him in Cleveland this past spring and I'm so grateful I had the chance to catch up with him in person. Just such a terrible loss. One of my all time best teachers EVER.

Jo-Anne Stern Lopatin
Beautiful piece, Sharna. Rabbi Schwartz was definitely one of the good ones. He'll be missed.

Kim Miller Mattei Wow! I am so shocked. He was always one of my favorites. Beautiful tribute to him, Sharna.

Paula Winicur
Really beautiful post, Sharna.

Missy Dobbins
I just read your blog, Sharn. Wow. That was so heartfelt and written beautifully to show what kind of man he was and the impact he had. I wish I would have reconnected with him. I could've learned a great deal. May he rest in peace. Comfort to his family and friends.

Laina Cohn
I too was one of those students Sharna speaks of in her blog, and Rabbi Schwartz has reached out to me in recent years through Facebook.

Cheryl Silver
I am stunned and immensely saddened. Rabbi Schwartz has been so kind to my entire family throughout the last two years. So sorry to hear this news today.

Keri Lopatin Berger O
h, my gosh! How sad. Rabbi Schwartz sent me an facebook post just last month asking how I was, and I've been meaning to respond, but just hadn't gotten to it yet.

Rachel Dowty
I have wonderful memories of Rabbi Schwartz, always a kind word and warm smile when I was having a hard day. He knew how to make every child feel welcome. I am so fortunate to have known him.

Brian Zubkoff
Thank you Eric and Sharna for your contributions. We are all deeply saddened for this loss of such a great man. For those of us who were lucky enough to have him as our teacher/rabbi and principal Rabbi Schwartz has left us all with fond memories. He will be missed.

YMedad said...

I only knew him for less than two weeks but was immensely impressed with him. His new project was daunting.

Boltgirl said...

I had occasionally Googled Rabbi over the past decade, but always as "Irwin H." rather than "Yitchak." I should've known better. And now I'm three years too late to the day.

My mom taught at SBHDS for several years in the '70s and early '80s, and I recognize some of the names in the comments here. If anybody remembers Mrs. Sibley (1st and 2nd grade secular), she certainly remembers you and cherishes her time at the school. Rabbi was a great presence in my young life, welcoming the awkward dorky gentile me into his office on a regular basis. He taught me phonetically read Hebrew and to program that amazing (at the time) TRS-80 computer. I'm gratified to hear that he kept in contact with so many students. What a wonderful man.