Heller, Bernard

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HELLER, BERNARD (1897–1976), rabbi, teacher, author. Heller was born near Kishinev, Russia, and shortly after the pogrom there in 1903, came to South Philadelphia. He received a B.A. degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1916, an M.A. degree in 1917 from Columbia University, and was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1920. After ordination Rabbi Heller served in Scranton, Pennsylvania, from 1920 to 1930 and became widely known for his religious, civic, and communal work. From the Scranton pulpit, he went to serve the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Michigan, where he was awarded a Ph.D. degree in 1932. He was also awarded an honorary Litt.D. degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

In 1943 Heller was appointed to a commission established to eliminate prejudicial references to Jews in Catholic and Protestant textbooks. In 1949 he was named director of Restitution of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., the agency charged with restoration of cultural property seized by the Nazis from Jewish people and institutions. From headquarters in Frankfurt-am-Main, Heller handled the distribution of the more than 30,000 confiscated volumes, many of them rare and valuable, which the Nazis had assembled for use in antisemitic institutes they hoped to establish after their victory.

In the early 1950s Heller traveled to India, where he served as rabbi of the liberal community of Bombay and then to Australia, and other parts of the world, where he lectured on Jewish topics and established Jewish study groups. From 1952 until his retirement he taught Jewish ethics and religion at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and lived in New York in close association with students and faculty of this institution and of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was awarded an honorary D.D. degree.

Heller published a number of works. His Epistle to an Apostate (1951) was an answer to the attempts of apostates to belittle and even defame Judaism, emphasizing, however, that it was not to be regarded as an attack on Christianity but onlyas an attempt to enlighten without counter-proselytizing. In his Dawn of Dusk? (1961) Heller showed how the antisemitic ideas of medieval Europe had prepared the ground for Nazism, but he avoided blaming all Germans for the Holocaust. His best-known work, however, is The Odyssey of a Faith (1942).

After years of rabbinic service, Dr. Heller pursued his interests in business as one of the founders of the predecessor to the United Brands Corporation and also of the West Indies Investment Company in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Dr. Heller was deeply concerned with the survival of the Jewish people and with the transmission of Jewish religious and cultural heritage. His life reflected his abiding interest in philosophy, in Jewish thought, and in scholarship. By the terms of his Last Will and Testament, Dr. Heller established the Dr. Bernard Heller Foundation for the benefit of Jewish education and for the welfare of the Jewish people in Israel. To date, the Foundation has distributed close to $10 million for these purposes. Dr. Heller frequently referred to himself as a trustee of his wealth for Israel.


Yearbook Central Conference of American Rabbis.

[Milton Ridvas Konvitz /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]