We Cannot Remain Silent
January 1, 2016 – 21 Tevet 5776
Congregation Bet Ha’am
Rabbi Jared H. Saks
Some years ago, after having been ordained from Hebrew Union College, I had a need to call upon the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the CCAR, for assistance with some matter. The person I was to contact was Rabbi Deborah Prinz – you know her as last year’s Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence. I emailed her with whatever the subject was about which I needed assistance and concluded my email with a lengthy adoration for her father, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who had served at Newark, New Jersey’s Temple B’nai Abraham from 1939 until 1977, who had married my grandparents, my great aunt and uncle, my aunt and uncle, my parents, and other members of my family. I got a reply from Rabbi Deborah Prinz, which she was evidently accustomed to writing, explaining that while Rabbi Joachim Prinz had a daughter named Deborah, his daughter was a different Deborah Prinz.
It seemed that Rabbi Deborah Prinz regularly received accolades for the rabbi who was not her father and I was just another person to mistake her for the other Deborah Prinz, assuming that, especially because of the impact of his rabbinate, that his daughter might have become a rabbi. Rabbi Joachim Prinz was born in 1902 in Germany. By age 21, he had earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and, in spite of his father’s having assimilated into the secular German society, he pursued rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau. By age 24, he had been invited to be the rabbi at the independent Friedenstempel in Berlin. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut referred to him as, “the country’s most sought-after preacher.” Even before Hitler took power, Rabbi Prinz spoke openly about the threat of the Nazis, encouraging Jews to make aliyah and flee Germany, which led to multiple arrests until his “friend” and informant in the Gestapo advised him to leave or else face certain death. He was sponsored by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the founders of the Reform Movement, and emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1937.
For two years, Rabbi Prinz toured the country speaking about what he had witnessed in Germany and the threat the Jewish community was facing, though often his thoughts were not widely accepted. America still had an isolationist approach to the conflict in Germany and felt that his pessimism was un-American. As the biography on his legacy’s official website reads, “They questioned whether this refugee rabbis shouldn’t find another country in which to live.” Unfortunately, his insights were only the tip of the iceberg of what was to befall the Jews of Germany and its neighbors. In 1939, Rabbi Prinz accepted the position as rabbi at Newark, New Jersey’s Temple B’nai Abraham, where he would serve for the next 38 years. When he took the pulpit at B’nai Abraham, the congregation was nearly bankrupt, as they had moved in on the eve of the Great Depression. Only 300 families remained and the congregation’s debts were staggering, but Prinz was such a dynamic leader and orator that soon 1,000 people might attend on a Friday night, and the congregation’s membership soared under his leadership. Today, it still thrives in Livinston, New Jersey.
During his tenure, Rabbi Prinz was an outspoken voice in the fight for civil rights. “Joachim Prinz devoted much of his life in the United States to the Civil Rights movement. He saw the plight of African American and other minority groups in the context of his own experience as Jew under Hitler. From his early days in Newark, a city with a very large minority community, he spoke from his pulpit about the disgrace of discrimination. He joined the picket lines across America protesting racial prejudice from unequal employment to segregated schools, housing and all other areas of life.”
On August 28, 1963, Rabbi Prinz represented the Jewish community, in his role as president of the American Jewish Congress, in the March on Washington, alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He spoke just before Dr. King and reminded the people that, “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.” In two weeks, as part of our observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend, before our Shabbat service, we will watch a documentary about Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s life and legacy, I Shall Not Be Silent, and during the service have a conversation about the film.
In watching the trailer, I was struck by words of praise for Rabbi Prinz that drew me back to our prayer book. “His attitude was that the purpose of a synagogue is to break down the walls of the sanctuary and to take the value system of this ancient tradition into the streets.” One of the readings for Kedushat HaYom, the sanctification of the Sabbath day, adapted from the words of Mitchell Salem Fisher, implore us, “Make us know that the border of the sanctuary is not the border of living and the walls of Your temples are not shelters from the winds of truth, justice and reality.” Each time I read these words – and when I heard the words about Rabbi Joachim Prinz – I am reminded that our prayers in this room are only a small piece of the puzzle, but they are meaningless if we do not put them into action outside the walls of this sanctuary.
This week’s parashah, Sh’mot, sets the stage for our legacy of compassion and empathy. We witness Moses’ birth, his adoption by Pharaoh’s daughter, his witness of Egyptian cruelty and the hardship of his fellow Hebrews, and his ultimate acceptance of God’s role for him as liberator of our people. Moses’ story is only the beginning of the story and as long as there are still people in bondage, we have not finished the task. As we encounter Moses’ story once again, as we reflect on Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s legacy in two weeks, and as we bear witness to the turmoil in our world today, we know one thing, we cannot remain silent. Shabbat Shalom.