- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 1, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - He’s being honored as a pursuer of peace, but working for positive social change involves a struggle that can be anything but tranquil, said Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside.

“If you want something, it will succeed - if you want to really push for it,” said Rabbi Jacob, 86.

He speaks from experience. In addition to leading Pittsburgh’s flagship Reform synagogue for three decades, Rabbi Jacob has taken a lead role in restarting the post-Holocaust education of rabbis in his native Germany, which he fled as a boy with memories of a Nazi-inspired mob desecrating his father’s synagogue.

He also drew on his innate tenacity to provide new residential options for disabled adults such as his late daughter and to bringing together experts to provide a thorough look at today’s most perplexing ethical questions from the perspective of liberal Judaism.

For his life’s work, Rodef Shalom plans to honor Rabbi Jacob on June 5 with its Pursuer of Peace Award, which it gives once every two years to someone promoting humanitarianism, social justice and interfaith understanding. Rodef Shalom is named for the Hebrew term for pursuer of peace. Rabbi Jacob will be the first Jewish recipient of the award, which previously went to Roman Catholic Bishop David Zubik, the late Rev. Fred (Mister) Rogers and Manchester Bidwell Corp. president William Strickland.

“Rabbi Jacob’s life work has been helping to make the world a more hospitable, special, sacred place,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, current rabbi of Rodef Shalom. Rabbi Jacob is in the 16th generation of rabbis dating back centuries in Germany, and while he’s the last in that biological lineage, “He’s raising a whole other generation of rabbinic leaders” to work in Germany and beyond. It’s an “amazing feat to be able to re-establish rabbinic education in the heart of Europe.”

Rabbi Jacob still keeps regular hours at Rodef Shalom, where his office is lined on four sides by floor-to-ceiling shelves holding historic and modern volumes of studies in theology, scripture, interfaith relations - and botany. The last category reflects his long work in Rodef Shalom’s Biblical Botanical Garden, the initiative of his late wife, Irene. It features plants named in or associated with the Bible. Irene died in 2012 and was preceded in death by the couple’s daughter, Claire, and their sons, Kenneth and Daniel.

While Rabbi Jacob has earned the title of senior scholar at the congregation, he’s anything but a reclusive one.

“Judaism is a very practical religion,” Rabbi Jacob said. “There is Jewish theology, but that plays a secondary role to action. My efforts have been much more along those lines than developing a philosophy of peace.”

As senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom from 1966 to 1996, Rabbi Jacob found plenty to keep him busy within congregational life, preaching, visiting the sick and preparing educational programs.

“But I always felt I needed to do more than that,” he said. And he did.

He was born in 1930 in Germany and came of age in Augsburg during the Nazi rise to power. Soon after the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of Nov. 9-10, 1938, in which Nazi-incited mobs desecrated his father’s synagogue, the family fled the country and wound up in Springfield, Mo.

There, in an Ozark region where Jews were few and Baptists alone had multiple denominations, he was deeply influenced by how his father developed warm relations with Christian neighbors. That influence bore fruit years later with Rabbi Jacob’s bonds with Pittsburgh’s Catholic bishops and his authorship of the book “Christianity Through Jewish Eyes: The Quest for Common Ground.”

He served as a U.S. Air Force chaplain in the Philippines, using the opportunity to see much of Asia and witness other religions and cultures up close, before eventually settling at Rodef Shalom.

After their daughter was born with significant disabilities, the Jacobs joined with other parents who wanted group homes as an alternative to the state institutions that were the only destination for the disabled once they became adults.

The organization they created, Horizon Homes, has since merged to form Mainstay Life Services.

But it took a struggle. “Everybody was for it, but ‘not in my neighborhood,’” he recalled. And it took time to persuade a foundation to take a chance on funding the new idea and to overcome political resistance and get the needed permits.

“It was a good lesson in politics, but it worked,” he said.

Rabbi Jacob regularly visited his native Germany but found the postwar scene discouraging, with a small Jewish remnant and plenty of beneath-the-surface anti-Semitism. By the 1980s, however, he saw a growing willingness of Germans to face their history honestly, and at the same time the Jewish population was rising through immigration from the former Soviet Union.

“I went to a fairly large meeting of people in their 20s and 30s” in Germany, he recalled. “There was plenty of enthusiasm.” But they needed rabbis.

Rabbi Jacob and a German colleague, Rabbi Walter Homolka, launched the first postwar seminary in Central Europe in 1999, educating rabbis who are preparing to work throughout Europe, South Africa and elsewhere.

The first rabbis from the institution were ordained in 2006, and Rabbi Jacob still returns regularly to lecture.

Rabbi Jacob also has organized annual conferences drawing on Reform Jewish scholars from across this country to take on cutting-edge ethical dilemmas on such topics as reproductive technology, terrorism, euthanasia, gender, crime and poverty.

The lesson he draws from being a pursuer of peace: “Your goal is peace, and whatever you’re trying to achieve, there will be opposition. It may be verbal opposition, or it may express itself politically, and you answer it politically.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1sILNtz

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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