Leo Baeck: 50 years later
I just got back last week from a very quick trip to Israel. I was at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa for the commemoration of my great-great-grandfather Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck‘s 50th yahrtzeit. My parents and I were there as special guests — my father and I are two of only 7 living descendants of Leo Baeck (the others are my grandmother, my two younger siblings, and my two younger cousins).
Leo Baeck was born in 1873. He studied in all three major Jewish movements as well as the University of Berlin, and was ordained at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. As a rabbi, he served congregations throughout (what was then) Germany, ending up in Berlin. His two major works were The Essence of Judaism (1905), in which he contrasted Judaism with Christianity and argued that Judaism was distinguished by the inseparability of faith and action/commandment, and This People Israel (1955), which he wrote in the concentration camp and published after the war.
Baeck was a liberal rabbi who was highly respected by all streams of German Jewry. So when the Nazis came to power and life got worse for the Jews, Baeck became the recognized leader of the German Jewish community. After Kristallnacht, Baeck’s 13-year-old granddaughter (my grandmother) emigrated to London on a Kindertransport, and her parents (Baeck’s daughter and son-in-law) followed soon after. (Baeck’s wife had died before the war.) With his stature and connections, Baeck had many opportunities before and during the war to flee Germany to safety, but he chose to stay behind, pledging that as long as any Jews remained in Germany, he would be their rabbi. After being arrested several times, he was finally deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943. In the concentration camp, Baeck would teach classes at night to the other inmates, providing inspiration in the most adverse circumstances. Baeck survived Theresienstadt, and was reunited with his family in London after the war. He died in November 1956, 50 years ago this month.
One of the many places where Leo Baeck’s legacy endures is in Haifa. In 1938, one of Baeck’s students, Rabbi Meir Elk, made aliyah. Baeck gave Elk a Torah scroll from the synagogue in Berlin, to start his community in Israel. (That Torah scroll now resides in the Ohel Avraham synagogue at the Leo Baeck Education Center. On Friday night, they asked us, the descendants, to come up and hold it.) Elk founded a progressive Jewish school in Haifa, combining secular and Jewish studies. It started out as the Hillel School, and was renamed the Leo Baeck School after the war.
Today, the Leo Baeck Education Center is affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and is more than just a school. It includes a junior and senior high school, a fledgling elementary school, the Ohel Avraham synagogue, the Lokey International Academy of Jewish Studies, and the Leo Baeck Community Center which serves the surrounding mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods. The Leo Baeck curriculum emphasizes Jewish values from a progressive perspective, and thus fills a niche that often goes unfilled in an Israeli educational system split between secular and Orthodox schools. The school includes a fully stocked beit midrash where students study Jewish texts in chavruta, alongside a rigorous secular curriculum. (I got to see part of a physics class, and as a physics teacher all I can say is watch out America!) The school’s understanding of Jewish values includes engagement with the broader community. Some of the essential social services provided by the community center are there because Leo Baeck high school students took the initiative to start them. During this summer’s war with Lebanon, when rockets were being fired at Haifa, the Leo Baeck school converted its underground parking garage into a day camp, where children could be out of harm’s way.
Many people in the United States and Jerusalem (the two places where I have lived my entire life) are under the impression that the Israeli Reform movement is dominated by “Anglos” (people from English-speaking countries). This is because their exposure to the Israeli Reform movement is limited to HUC-JIR (the Jerusalem campus of an American university) and Kol HaNeshama (a Jerusalem congregation founded by Israelis who made aliyah from the United States).
[Side note: I don’t mean to suggest that Anglo communities are any less legitimate or less Israeli than any others. Israel is a nation of immigrants, where Jews from all over the world retain elements of their cultures of origin, while participating in and contributing to the broader Israeli culture and identity. If Iraqi Jews and Lithuanian Jews and Ethiopian Jews can be considered fully Israeli while maintaining Jewish traditions that originated elsewhere, why are American Jews any less entitled?] But this impression is shown to be inaccurate as soon as you step outside of Jerusalem. There are vibrant progressive Jewish congregations in cities like Tel Aviv, Modi’in, and Ra’anana, all populated primarily by native Israelis. And the Leo Baeck Education Center, whose community includes people of all ages, may be Israeli progressive Judaism at its finest, and most of its students and faculty are Israeli-born. The headmaster is a Leo Baeck graduate himself, and the rabbis were born and ordained in Israel.
This was my first time spending more than 24 hours in Haifa, and I highly recommend it. Haifa is a beautiful city, and much more chill than Jerusalem; there’s a reason that no one has been diagnosed with Haifa Syndrome. And it makes sense that Haifa is fertile ground for the development of Israeli progressive Judaism. It’s not weighed down by the baggage of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodoxy or Tel Aviv’s ultra-secularity. My Israeli cousin said “In Jerusalem, people pray. In Tel Aviv, people play. In Haifa…. people live.” Haifa has a culture of religious pluralism; though things got off to a rough start, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations now live together peacefully, as well as the Bahá’í World Centre. Perhaps Haifa will be the beginning of the rebuilding of Israel on progressive Jewish values.
May the life and teachings of Rabbi Leo Baeck continue to be an inspiration to us 50 years later, as we combine faith and action in working toward better societies.