Alfred Gottschalk, 79

Alfred Gottschalk, 79, Led Prominent Jewish Seminary

By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009; 11:37 AM

Alfred Gottschalk, 79, who served 25 years as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, among Reform Judaism's most prominent seminaries, and who became the first to ordain female rabbis in the Reform movement, died Sept. 12 at a hospital in Cincinnati.

He died of injuries from a car accident last October, said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, a spokeswoman for the college-institute, where Dr. Gottschalk was president from 1971 to 1996. As chancellor from 1996 until his retirement in 2000, he continued to help guide the institution.

Dr. Gottschalk, who grew up in Germany during Hitler's rise to power, witnessed the anti-Semitic Kristallnacht attacks of November 1938 and spoke of those events as a defining moment of his life.

The morning after the rampage against Jews, Dr. Gottschalk, who was then 8, and his paternal grandfather found fragments of a Torah scroll that had been shredded and thrown into a river. As he often recalled, his grandfather handed him pieces of the scroll and told him, "One day you'll put them together again."

After his family settled in the United States, Dr. Gottschalk was ordained a rabbi and made social justice a core part of his work. Early in his career, he was dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and created a program to train Jewish community service workers.

Most notably, while president of the seminary, he ordained the first female rabbi in North America, Sally Priesand, amid opposition from within the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements.

"Many people felt that this was a violation of traditional gender roles in Judaism and that men alone should serve in the position of rabbi," said Rabbi David Ellenson, the current president of the college-institute. "Once he took this step, the notion disappeared in the Reform movement."

Fourteen years later, the Conservative movement ordained its first female rabbi. Meanwhile, Dr. Gottschalk invested the first American female cantor, Barbara Herman, in 1975, and the first Israeli female rabbi, Naama Kelman, in 1992.

During Dr. Gottschalk's tenure as president, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was the first to admit gay and lesbian students to rabbinical studies in 1990. Following his lead, the seminary later established the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation in Los Angeles, which helps to develop opportunities for gay people within Jewish life.

Alfred Gottschalk was born March 7, 1930, in Oberwesel, Germany. In 1939, he immigrated to New York with his mother, Erna, and was reunited with his father, Max, who fled Germany a year earlier. He shined shoes to earn extra money and said he learned English from attending Sunday movie matinees.

"I once thanked President Reagan for teaching me English -- he was in all the movies at that time," he told the Jewish weekly Forward in 2000.

Dr. Gottschalk said he decided to become a rabbi at 15, in part because he was impressed by the anti-Hitler speeches of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who helped create the World Jewish Congress.

In 1952, Dr. Gottschalk received a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College. In 1957, he was ordained a rabbi by Hebrew Union College, where he also received a master's degree in Hebrew literature from its Cincinnati campus. In 1965, he received a doctorate in the Bible and Jewish thought from the University of Southern California.

Under presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Dr. Gottschalk served on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which guided the development of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. From 2000 to 2003, he served as president of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

His marriage to Jeanne Schrag "Gina" Gottschalk ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Deanna Zeff Frank Gottschalk of Cincinnati; two children from his first marriage, Marc Gottschalk of Laguna Beach, Calif., and Rachel Brenner of Westlake Village, Calif.; two stepsons, Charles Frank of Cincinnati and Andrew Frank of Toronto; and nine grandchildren.

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