Rabbi Frederick C. Schwartz, z”l

Rabbi Frederick C.  Schwartz passed away early morning, January 29, on Shabbat. (Obituary)

Rabbi Fred was my childhood Rabbi at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was his first Bar Mitzvah in 1966. I was in Fred’s Confirmation Class – I and about 61 other teens. But it was in the post-Confirmation class where Fred’s teachings truly inspired me and taught me the joy of serious Torah study. He nurtured the TYG at Mt. Zion into which Mike Fefferman drew me and which captured my heart. We kept in touch during my college and Rabbinic school days.  In spring of 1981, when Rabbi Shaul (Paul) Feinberg was hired by HUC-Jerusalem, the position of  “younger Rabbi” opened up at Temple Sholom in Chicago, the pulpit Rabbi Fred assumed in 1974. That was the beginning of nine wonderful years we spent together at Temple Sholom.  Throughout, Fred remained my Rabbi and mentor; and he and Roberta made me feel like family. Subsequently, Fred performed Fran’s and my wedding and named Marc, Jenna, and Ilana. In 1990, Fred presided over my installation at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, NJ.

Rabbi Fred suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 15 years and, due largely to his perseverance and that of Roberta, he enjoyed many more productive  years than most with this cruel and debilitating disease. In many ways, the stroke which took him painlessly came as a blessing. Still, he is missed by so so many

I was honored to officiate at his funeral on Sunday, January 30. Below is the eulogy I  presented. For those who knew Rabbi Fred, your comments and memories are most welcome.

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Rabbi Frederick C. Schwartz
Harav Ephraim ben Shmuel

January 30, 2011 – 25 Sh’vat, 5771
Temple Sholom, Chicago, Illinois

Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff

Prologue

Friends, our time for weeping has come. For we have gathered together in this sanctuary of sorrow to bid a loving and respectful farewell to Rabbi Dr. Frederick C. Schwartz, beloved husband, father, grandfather, Torah-intoxicated rabbi, rabbi’s rabbi, teacher, advisor, inspiration, supporter, and cherished friend.

Fred’s passing comes not as a total surprise, although we did not expect it would be this way and so relatively quickly. His death, though profoundly sad, is not tragic. Fred Schwartz lived a long productive, purposeful, impactful life of faith, action and “humbility” that was a blessing to so many in so many ways; it is difficult to ask for more out of one lifetime. He died without suffering – and that was a blessing as well.

But knowing all that, and knowing that he is gone, I have to say that our being here still feels surreal. For how could it be that someone so totally energetic, so filled with life, a man of passion and integrity, someone who had such a powerful and transformative presence wherever he went, how can it be that he is no more? I expect to look up and see him walking up here and standing here where he stood so many times before. Yes, our minds know why we are here – it is just going to take our hearts some time to catch up and to know the full impact of our loss.

And so, our task this day is to honor and remember him with gratitude and love, with sorrow and, I imagine, some laughter, to give and to receive consolation, to mourn his death and to celebrate his life. And since Fred made us aware of how God both laughs and cries, we can take comfort in knowing that the God who has laughed and will yet laugh again, this day is weeping with us.

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Eulogy

Avi, Avi, rechev Yisrael ufarashav!
My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen! (2 Kings 2:12)

This strange cry was first uttered by the prophet Elisha, apprentice to Elijah, as he watched his teacher and mentor ascend to the heavens. No, Elijah and Elisha were not literally father and son; yet we know when there is such a relationship between a student and a teacher, a devotee and his or her inspiration and role model, with connections linking both the mind and the heart, then the line separating father and mentor often blurs beyond recognition.

So it is no surprise that I have not been able to get this verse out of my head ever since I heard about Rabbi Fred’s stroke which was to take him from us. No, Fred was not Elijah. (I’m not sure how much he even liked going to brises.) And I am no Elisha. But I believe that I – and so many others here and not here – feel much the same loss and longing, emptiness and disbelief that Elisha felt as he witnessed the passing of the man who was both his generation’s most zealous prophet, and who, on a very personal level was his teacher, inspiration and a genuinely caring father figure.

I stand here today as an individual, one who was blessed to have had Fred Schwartz play such a role in my life. My connection and that of my family began in 1966 when Fred, Roberta and three small boys came to Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul where my grandfather (of blessed memory) was his dentist; and I was his first Bar Mitzvah. The rest, as they say, is history, a history that would be too long in the telling and which many of you already know. Suffice it to say, and with little exaggeration, that most of what I am as a rabbi and what I treasure in my life – including my own wife and children – I owe directly or indirectly to Fred.

But I am also keenly aware that I also stand here today to give collective voice to all of us who shared aspects of what I experienced of Fred at various times in our lives, and to express but an inadequate measure of the profound gratitude we all feel for the blessings he brought.

Who are we, then? Who stands with me here?

We are the students. We are the children, teens and adults beyond number, whom Rabbi Fred taught and inspired in the classroom, in his years as an Air Force Chaplain and Hillel Director, and then at Rodeph Sholom in Pittsburgh, Mt. Zion in St. Paul and finally here at Temple Sholom. As a teacher and interpreter of Torah, Fred had no equal. His teaching derived from his own experience, from that which he had learned from his teachers, Dr. Solomon Freehof and others, and from the arduous and uncompromising study and preparation he put into every lesson he taught. Speaking personally, while youth group engaged my heart, it was his teaching that challenged and inspired my mind, which is why I am standing here today. We were his students and always will be.

We are the youth, the teens of the TYGs, of NoFTY and CiFTY, the campers of Torah Corps and Avodah Corps who learned Torah both from the text as well as from Rabbi Fred’s down to earth, approachable and totally unpretentious humanness. Whether inside the library or sitting under a tree, Fred never talked down to us, never compromised or diluted his teaching. He took us seriously and had a unique ability to connect the timeless teachings of Judaism to the timely concerns of teens whose newly discovered buzzword was “relevancy.” For those of us open to learning, Fred not only taught Torah, he was Torah. We are the youth.

We are the friends and congregants. As a friend, Fred was echad b’mino, one of a kind. He was echad ba-lev v’echad ba-peh; he said what he thought and felt, often courageously so. He had no pretence and played no games. He led a Torah driven life with purpose and integrity and challenged the rest of us to do the same. Contrary to what he taught about what Buber taught about the fleeting nature of the I-Thou relationship, I believe that Fred in fact rarely lived in the I-It mode. His everyday relationships most often bespoke the I-Thou in relationships which were honest and open and present in the moment.

We are the colleagues. We are the rabbinic students Fred touched at HUC. We are all the rabbis who were blessed to have worked with him in St. Paul and in Chicago, not as his assistants or associates – he kept reminding me that they could be abbreviated the same way – but simply as younger colleagues. We are the rabbinic friends and spouses, retired and not, who enjoyed learning and laughing as peers and as old friends, whose company he loved so much and to whom he was so loyal We are also all the educators, cantors and soloists, administrators, youth directors, workers in the Jewish community and lay leaders with whom he worked through the years. He took great satisfaction in listening to all of our opinions, in nurturing our growth and enabling our success, often putting us out front in roles most in his position would reserve for themselves.

This ability derived, I believe, from what I saw as Fred’s tremendous ego-strength – which is different than ego, which is self-focused and self-serving. He knew who he was and, without a hint of self-satisfaction, was probably the most secure person I ever met. And it was that inner strength and security which I believe allowed him to be so giving and so enabling. He knew and reminded the rest of us that when the quarterback is able to hand the ball off to another player who then gains yardage and gets the accolades, it advances the whole team. He was never threatened by the success of any other rabbi and this allowed him to be both a generous mentor and a loyal advocate.

That was even true with an older colleague of ours, Rabbi Eric Friedland, of blessed memory, who joined the rabbinic staff at Temple Sholom. When the folks at Beth Am were looking to move on mass to be part of Temple Sholom, Fred insisted on bringing Eric on board, this despite all the advice coming his way that Eric, without meaning to, would pose a threat to Fred’s authority. But the phrase “threat to his authority” simply was not part of his vocabulary, so this south side boxer fought hard and fought courageously to make it work. He knew it was good for Sholom, good for Beth Am, good for the Jewish people, as Dr. Freehof would say, and the right thing to do. But that was Fred, and with time, he was proven correct.

Fred always wanted to learn from those of us around him, but we learned much more from him: We learned:

  • That one can never rest on one’s laurels, that the messiah has not yet come, and so there will always be a need to work to do more and do better.
  • That loyalty to family, to colleagues, to staff, to the Temple and to the Jewish people are paramount virtues
  • That we rabbis continually earn our smicha through our regular Torah study
  • That when the educational bar is held high, people will rise to meet it
  • That the only thing worth delaying the start of Friday evening services is a White Sox game.
  • We learned that the world “we” is far more important the world I.

And finally, as the students and the youth, the colleagues, co-workers and friends, we are the many who witnessed Fred in the role he cherished the most, that of family man. We saw Fred the ever inspired son of a father, S.D. Schwartz, who taught him so much about Jewish communal life and whose exposure to the important people of his time trained Fred never to be shy or intimidated in the presence of supposed greatness. We saw Fred the dedicated and loyal son to his mother and to Roberta’s mother, who, together with Roberta, made them both simply a part of the household, not an easy thing as their health was waning.

And, dear Roberta, how blessed we have been to be witness to this love affair between you and your Freddy. Looking from the outside, it seemed that among the many strengths of your love and your marriage were the tremendous mutual respect and admiration you felt and the sense of mission which you shared. Your lives together bespoke of purpose, lilmod u’lelamed, to learn and to teach. Your mission together was to exemplify chesed, which is both kindness and loyalty, and, most importantly, to nurture a family of sons who could find their own path in the world, sons who would make a difference and carry on Jewish life, each in his own way.

You have so many precious memories through the years as you adventured forth, initially from place to place. You were his true ezer k’nedgo, and he was yours.

These last years, as Fred approached and entered retirement, were to have been better, easier years together. But that was not to be. Instead, issues of health took so much away. But through it all, and almost until the end, Fred was functioning and engaging, uncomplaining and ever-hopeful.

You mentioned that there were times during this period when you would loose it and Fred would talk you down and bring you calm. But I sense that much of his inner strength came from the knowledge that you were there with him and for him, and with you at his side, he need never be afraid. He knew that he would not have had the strength – he simply would not have had the years – were it not for your tenacious love and devotion, your commitment to questioning the “experts” and learning things that they either did not know or did not want to admit to, about how to add both quantity of years and quality of life to those so stricken. You were such a blessing to him from beginning to end, through the times of difficulty and accomplishment, of challenges encountered and challenges met.

Yours, Roberta, is a unique and profound loss this day on so many levels. But you know that your heart, even as it is broken, is yet filled with undying love and respect for Fred and all that he stood for, yet filled with the satisfaction and even joy that your Freddy had a life which was well-lived, purposeful, happy, meaningful, and generously shared.

And together with Fred, you raised three wonderful and devoted sons. Ethan, Jeremy, Seth, the three of you were truly the crown on your father’s head. You don’t need me to tell you how very proud he was of each of you and the menshes you have grown to be, but I think I just did. Each of you, in your own way, has pursued your various passions, each of which was somehow connected to one of his passions: be it learning and being aware of what is happening in the world, being contributing members of the Jewish community and to the community at large, working to bring justice into the world, or pursuing a passion for sports and for writing. Each of you has spoken so eloquently of your father and the love and respect that you shared. Mah she ba min halev nichnas el ha lev, what comes from the heart enters the heart, and in speaking from your hearts, you deeply touched our hearts as well. His respect for you, his pride and trust, were truly well earned.

And how he loved your Robin and Roberta. I don’t think that the word “in-law” was part of his vocabulary. You were true daughters to him, and he was deeply grateful for the love the many gifts which you brought to this family, not the least of which were his six adored and adoring grandchildren.

For if his children were the crown on his head, then the six of you, Joshua, Joseph, Jacob, Benjamin, Samantha and Claire, you were and remain the shining jewels in that crown. You know, Your Grandpa was a very modest man. He would never brag about himself. When it came to his sons, yes, he spoke with pride about each of them. But when it came to the six of you, forget about it! It still was not bragging, but it was the closest to it I ever saw him come. You see, his face would light up as he talked about each of you, what you were in to, how he loved studying with you for Bar Mitzvah, the things you each loved to do, be it sports or academics or dance. He was so so proud of you and grateful to your parents for raising you so well.

You know, someday, please God, you will have families of your own. Sadly your children will never meet your Grandpa. They will never meet him, but still they will know him. They will know him in the stories you tell and in the pictures you show them. But more importantly, they will know him in the values which he taught you and which you, each in your own way, will make part of your lives, values like love of family, loyalty to friends, learning and living as dedicated Jews connected to Israel and to synagogue life, and doing your part to make this world more of what God dreams it to be.

Beloveds, were we to say all that could and should be said, recount the countless ways he taught and gave and inspired and loved, we would never take leave of this place, and leave we must. We take comfort in the knowledge that, in the final analysis, from this day forward, who he was and what he did will continue to speak his name and his praise more forcefully and more eloquently than our meager words today. For Frederick C. Schwartz continues to live among us and within us in the immortality of his influence, through the family he helped create, nurture and shape, through the students and colleagues he inspired, encouraged and enabled, through the institutions he helped to build and shape, and in the very special Torah he taught, embodied and  exemplified. And so as we commend his spirit back to its Source, we give our thanks and our praise to the Holy One in whose infinite wisdom, compassion, strength and love, blessed us with this undying source of energy we knew as Fred Schwartz.

Zecher tzadik l’vracha – may the memory of this good, righteous rabbi live on among us and within us in the hearts and lives of those who cherish his memory in love.

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