Rabbi Richard (Dick) Hirsch turned 90 this past year. One would think that at that age Dick’s physical strength, sharp mind, and passion would be diminished.
Though he has his share of aches and pains, there is nothing diminished about Rabbi Dick Hirsch. He remains after more than half a century of activism the vital Zionist and social justice giant of the American and Israeli Reform movements.
Dick is the founding Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington, D.C. He is responsible for moving the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) offices from the United States to Jerusalem, raising the money and overseeing the construction of the WUPJ Center and Beit Shmuel that house the central offices of the Israeli Reform movement on King David Street only steps from the King David Hotel. And he is a founder of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the pre-eminent social justice advocacy organization in the State of Israel.
Dick argued before the leaders of American Reform Judaism in the late 1960s and early 1970s that for the Reform movement to earn its rightful place in Jewish history we would have to build an institutional and broadly-based presence in the State of Israel. This would include building synagogue centers all over the state, progressive Jewish schools, a rabbinic and cantorial seminary for Israeli-born leaders, kibbutzim, a youth movement, and a social justice movement that helps to grow and transform not only Israeli society but the character of world Jewry.
Fifty years ago Dick told the Board of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) that for Jews “Jerusalem is Broadway and the United States is off-Broadway.” He also said to them soon after the ’67 war, that “Without Zionism, there is no Judaism!” The reaction of the then American Reform leadership was strong and negative. But, Dick carried on, at times by himself, and succeeded in igniting and inspiring others to join him in transforming progressive Judaism in the State of Israel.
Dick didn’t just talk the talk. In 1972, he and his wife Bella picked up their four children and moved to Israel. I met him for the first time the following year when I was a first-year rabbinic student at HUC in Jerusalem.
Dick is a consummate storyteller, teacher, and Zionist leader. Jews and non-Jews alike are usually riveted when he speaks. Thankfully, earlier this month in a talk he delivered in Florida entitled “My Life and My Beliefs,” Dick was recorded. Now we can watch and listen on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6AsMvUBV-E
Jewish leaders like Rabbi Dick Hirsch come around very infrequently. Many have admired him and called him their friend including Dr. Martin Luther King, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Natan Sharansky.
I urge you to take the hour and watch.
For those who know me, I hope you will sense why Dick has had such a strong impact on me personally.
The acorn does not fall far from the tree. Dick’s son, Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, the Senior Rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on West 68th Street in Manhattan, is among my dearest friends. Ammi and I met when he served as the Executive Director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) in the 1990s. It was Ammi and then his father who drew me to the heart of Reform Zionism, and for that, I am forever in their debt.
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