Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, a Cleveland native and a towering voice for the international Reform movement for decades, died in Boca Raton, Fla., Aug. 16. He was 94.
Hirsch was founding director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the social justice arm of the Reform movement, from 1962 to 1973 in Washington, D.C. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and is credited with helping pass the landmark 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts.
In 1973, Hirsch relocated to Jerusalem to become the executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a move he orchestrated and was instrumental in building the campus of Hebrew Union College on Jerusalem’s King David Street. He led the international Reform movement organization for 26 years and was named honorary life president upon his retirement in 1999.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch told the Cleveland Jewish News Aug. 18 his father was profoundly influenced by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, Cleveland’s leading Reform rabbi in the early 20th century and an ardent Zionist.
“He founded the two great … ideological institutions of the second half of the 20th century of Reform Judaism,” his son said. “He founded the Religious Action Center, which set into motion the future of the Reform movement’s social justice agenda, and one of the key decisions of the 20th century of the Reform movement was his decision to move the International headquarters of the Reform Movement to Jerusalem.”
Born Sept. 5, 1926, the son of Bertha (Gusman) and Abe Hirsch, he graduated from Cleveland Heights High School and from the University of Cincinnati. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
At age 13, prior to the establishment of Israel, he entered and won a national Young Judaea oratory contest. He was one of the youngest contestants.
“I saw a little clipping of this in a 1939 Cleveland paper,” Hirsch said. “He won first prize and Abba Hillel Silver was so delighted. The topic of his speech was … why the Jewish world should invest in the settlement in Palestine.”
In addition, his son said he found a letter Silver wrote to Hirsch in 1949, the year Hirsch was studying in Israel at Hebrew University.
“He was the first rabbinical student that studied in the newly formed state of Israel,” Hirsch said of his father. He said, Silver’s letter stated, “It’s our pleasure to offer you a $500 scholarship to continue your studies at the Hebrew University.”
Hirsch met his wife-to-be, Bella Rosencweig, in 1954 when he was head of Shwayder Camp in Denver and he was looking for a nurse to hire. She had immigrated from Russia to Israel and later came to Denver to see the remnants of her family who survived the Holocaust.
“He hired her sight unseen, just the idea that there would be a nurse from Israel,” Hirsch said of his father. “Six weeks later they were married.”
He called Hirsch “an exciting father” and said, “There were constantly people in our home” and that the discussions at the table “were something to behold.”
Rabbi Richard Block, who succeeded Hirsch at the World Union for Progressive Judaism, called Hirsch, “one of the most monumental rabbinic figures in the 20th century.”
Block said the Hirsches were “warmly hospitable” to his wife, Susie, and to him while they lived in Israel.
“They had an extraordinarily close, loving and respectful relationship,” wrote Block, who went on to lead The Temple-Tifereth Israel, where he is rabbi emeritus. “Bella was a formidable person in her own right – intuitive, thoughtful, frank and kind.”
Hirsch returned to Cleveland occasionally for speaking engagements at local synagogues.
Rabbi Daniel Roberts, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu El which was in University Heights and is now in Orange, said he first met Hirsch when he was a rabbinical student in Jerusalem.
“He was a guy with vision and a deep sense of social justice,” Roberts told the CJN Aug. 17 from his Denver residence. “The fact that he started the Reform Action Center in Washington, is just an example of both of those – his deep commitment that justice is at the heart of Judaism and at the heart of life itself.”
He said Hirsch believed, “we have a responsibility to do something and not just accept life for what it was. So I had a lot of positive feelings about Richard. I knew him but so did a lot of other people. I have lots of admiration for him.”
Hirsch maintained ties to his Cleveland relatives and officiated at bar mitzvah ceremonies for three of the four boys in the Haas family of Shaker Heights and made similar arrangements for the one child he missed because he was in Russia at the time.
Jordan Haas said Hirsch told family stories at his 1991 bar mitzvah in the chapel of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
“He spent a long time telling family stories and talking about his life and how it related,” Haas told the CJN Aug. 18. “It was special for me.”
Haas said Hirsch told his family that when he was a child, his family played a game of “when we go to Jerusalem.” Each person, he said, would add an item. The Haas family spent its travels in Israel playing that same game, Haas said, adding that it was a way of engaging his youngest brother. “It all started when cousin Dick talked about it during my bar mitzvah.”
Hirsch’s wife, Bella, died in 2019. He leaves four children, Dr. Ora Hirsch (Dan Walsh) Pesovitz in Detroit, Dr. Raphael(Jodi) Hirsch in San Francisco, Rabbi Ammiel (Alison) Hirsch of New York City, Dr. Emmet (Arica) Hirsch in Chicago; 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Hirsch will be buried in Israel at a later date.