The Weissberg Era

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In 1954, Victor Weissberg and his wife, Tamar Libovsky, came north to Palmer Square from the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park. The prior year Rabbi Weissberg had served as the assistant rabbi and youth and educational director of Temple Isaiah Israel—the city’s second oldest synagogue after KAM, (with whom Isaiah Israel would eventually merge in 1971). While this was the rabbi’s first assignment following the completion of his studies at HUC and the University of Cincinnati’s School of Education, he was no stranger to Hyde Park.

After a term of service in the Atlantic with the Navy, Weissberg attended the University of Chicago, graduating in 1948. Interestingly, the University of Chicago had also been Paul Gorin’s alma mater, although Rabbis Gorin and Weissberg shared another more important link through the U.S. Military Chaplaincy. While in the Navy, Weissberg’s contact with military chaplain Rabbi Jacob Schankman inspired him to consider a career in the clergy.
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During his years at the University of Chicago, Weissberg developed a deep passion for social justice and a remarkable aptitude for the study of human behavior. While these academic credentials and interests initially led him to gain admittance to the U of C Law School, Weissberg’s memories of Rabbi Schankman paired with his love of Judaism—a love deepening with heightened awareness of the growing plight of world Jewry—pushed him into the rabbinate.

Always an ardent supporter of Israel, Weissberg interrupted his schooling at HUC to accept a scholarship given by the Cleveland Zionist Society for a year’s study in Israel. Instructed by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver to study there only what could not be learned at HUC, Weissberg enrolled at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied with some of the most prominent Jewish thinkers of the time, including Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Shimon Halkin, Theodor Albeck, Rabbi Simcha Assaf, Ezekiel Kaufman and Isaiah Tishby. He also engaged in private study with Rabbi Clements, former Chief Rabbi of Moscow and a member of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

Weissberg also served as Rabbi Silver’s secretary during the 23rd Zionist Congress, the first to be held in the State of Israel; all previous Congresses had convened in Europe. It was in the midst of this intense year of study that he met a fiery young sabra named Tamar, a member of the Jerusalem Police Force. She became his wife in February 1952 after a six-week courtship. After many miles of travel and many more hours of study, the young rabbi and his wife settled in Hyde Park, never compromising their ardent love and support for Eretz Yisrael and for study.

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Rabbi Weissberg’s love for Israel was so strong that, in one of his first official acts as spiritual leader of the synagogue, he firmly planted an Israeli flag on the bimah next to the American flag. He explained to his new congregation that a serviceman always travels with his flag and displays it proudly—and he would be no exception. Rabbi Weissberg also possessed a gentleness that slowly warmed the congregation to his bold stance on Israel.

Weissberg’s studies of interpersonal dynamics at the University of Chicago and his work in psychotherapy at Chicago’s Adler Institute had trained him well for the opposition he would confront as leader of Temple Beth-El. Under Rabbis Lipman, Gorin, and Buchler, the synagogue had become a mainline Reform congregation, committed to a cultural but not necessarily religious Jewish heritage, and marginally concerned for Israel.

As Rabbi Weissberg took over, he led the synagogue back toward a more centrist position and fostered greater congregational involvement in political concerns; temple members recall that he undertook great measures to execute this direction with warmth and understanding. When he delivered divrei Torah of a political nature, he descended from the bimah and spoke from within the congregation, encouraging interactive congregational discourse instead of preaching. And when he advocated for a temple-wide State of Israel Bond Drive—the first of its kind among Reform synagogues in the city—he appealed to all members of the synagogue community, seeking particularly important support from the financially autonomous sisterhood.

The rabbi’s first major victory came in late 1954, when the sisterhood agreed to purchase a $1,000 Israel Savings Bond. Their enthusiasm relieved the congregation’s general uneasiness, and, before long, key figures in the synagogue were signing onto the cause. As the tide began to turn, Philip Klutznick, a prominent suburban developer (and later Secretary of Commerce under President Carter) sealed the deal in personally guaranteeing a second $1,000 bond. With both the sisterhood and Klutznick behind the project, the bond drive was a success, the Israeli flag stayed on the bimah, and the rabbi began winning the hearts and minds of his new congregation.

Rabbi Weissberg with Eli Wiesel
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