[This post was originally written and published in Schechter's Shavuon on November 30, 2009.]
Today is the yahrzeit of Solomon Schechter z”l. In our tradition, we celebrate the lives of those who made a lasting impact by remembering the date of their passing rather than their birth. By so doing, we honor the accomplishments of lives well lived as opposed to births, when lives were yet to be shaped.
Solomon Schechter, for whom more than 70 schools, seminaries and institutions worldwide dedicated to Jewish learning are named, was a Romanian and English rabbi, academic scholar and educator. He is most famous for his roles as founder and president of the United Synagogue of America, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and architect of the American Conservative Jewish movement.
Schechter was born in Romania in 1847 to a Chassidic family. His Chassidic upbringing did not satisfy him, and in 1879, he went to study at the Berlin Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums and at the University of Berlin. In 1882, Schechter was invited to be a tutor in rabbinics in London. He quickly rose to prominence as a rabbinic scholar and spokesman for Jewish traditionalism. In 1890, he was appointed lecturer in Talmudics and in 1892, reader in rabbinics at Cambridge University. In 1899, he also became professor of Hebrew at University College, London.
He gained international fame as a scholar when he discovered and brought back to London more than 100,000 pages of rare manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza. Beyond sorting and filing the documents, Schechter wrote about the newly found Ben Sirach materials.
In the early 1880s, a number of American Jewish leaders tried to establish a seminary and movement, but they found very little support. The Reformers weren’t interested, nor were the new Russian immigrants. In 1902, Rabbi Schechter was invited to become president of a newly revamped school, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Schechter accepted the invitation and succeeded in attracting an outstanding group of scholars to teach. The JTS became a recognized center of Jewish learning.
In 1913, Schechter was instrumental in founding the United Synagogue of America, the umbrella organization of all Conservative congregations. Though a staunch traditionalist, Schechter admitted there could be change in modern Judaism. However, he felt changes should not be introduced arbitrarily or deliberately. Rather, “the norm as well as the sanction of Judaism is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use—or, in other words, of Catholic Israel.”
In the hallways of both of our schools, candles are lit today beneath a picture of Schechter. Adjoining the picture, Dr. David Starr, parent, teacher and Schechter scholar, wrote, “Schechter’s thought overwhelmingly reveals a man wrestling with the categories implicit in ‘tradition and modernity.’ The history of Schechter’s Seminary, as it came to be known, reveals his willingness to act in such a way as to seize the vital center of Jewish life. The impact on American Jewry was palpable. Through his presence, his writings and through the Seminary and its affiliates, American Jewry now had a center and the beginnings of a high culture at once rooted in traditional texts, as well as versed in modern methods of scholarship.”
It is the commitment to developing, cultivating and strengthening that vital center that this school and the network of Schechter schools across the nation and around the world share. It is because of his vision and leadership that we maintain our mission to build the core of the next generation of the Jewish community and, we believe, its leaders.
As in prior years, today I wore a beard, in the fashion of Schechter, and spoke with classes about the school’s namesake. I hope to help our students see that the school they attend honors a man and his vision – for seriousness of purpose, a commitment to honor tradition, a readiness to engage the world in which we live, and participation as a link in a community that stretches both into the past and forward as far as the mind’s eye can see. May our work, and the work of our students, continue to help Schechter’s memory be a blessing.