Saperstein, Harold I.
SAPERSTEIN, HAROLD I.
SAPERSTEIN, HAROLD I. (1910–2001), a leading congregational rabbi of mid-20th century American Reform Judaism. As an undergraduate at Cornell, Saperstein was influenced by Rabbi Stephen S. *Wise to enter the Jewish Institute of Religion, from which he graduated in 1935. From 1933 (while still a student, replacing his ailing uncle Rabbi Adolph Lasker) until 1980, he served as the Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El of Lynbrook, Long Island. During his tenure, the Lynbrook synagogue grew from some seventy families to nearly one thousand.
As chaplain for the American Army from 1943 to 1946, he served in North Africa, Italy, France, Germany, and Belgium, reaching the rank of major. His report on the young Jews hidden by Father Joseph André of Namur, which appeared in The New York Times, was one of the first public reports of Gentiles saving Jews. In Worms, Germany, soon after the American forces entered, he recovered the priceless 13th-century illuminated Worms Mahzor from Dr. Friedrich M. Illert, a German archivist who had hidden it during the war, and facilitated its eventual transfer to the National Library in Jerusalem. (These endeavors were later described in Rabbis in Uniform by Louis Barish and g.i. Jews by Deborah Dash Moore.)
An inveterate traveler to far-flung Jewish communities, Saperstein attended the World Zionist Congress of 1939, visiting Jews in northern Poland and Palestine in the summer of 1939 (where he was injured by an Arab sniper), Russia, Poland, and Hungary in 1959, India, Ethiopia, and South Africa in 1967, and some 80 other countries on six continents. He served as the North American chair of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. A lifelong Zionist (as was his grandfather, Rabbi Hyman M. Lasker of Troy, New York), who served as chair of the Israel Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, he and his wife Marcia helped pioneer youth and congregational trips to Israel, leading with the first Israel tour sponsored by the National Federation of Temple Youth in 1955.
Outspoken civil rights activists, during the summer of 1965 he and his wife did voter-registration work in Lowndes County, Alabama, with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
During his term as president of the New York Board of Rabbis (1970–1972), he was a frequent public spokesman on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and he was on the cutting edge of the confrontation with the Jewish Defense League.
Despite these public roles, Saperstein thought of himself primarily as a congregational rabbi: as teacher, preacher, and counselor to three generations of Jews. After his formal retirement from Lynbrook he returned to full-time rabbinic service in New York City's Central Synagogue and Rodeph Sholom Congregation, and in the West London Synagogue of British Jews. He and his wife Marcia also traveled on behalf of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations through various regions of the United States, visiting small synagogues to provide rabbinic services and training for their lay leaders.
A selection of his sermons responding to historical events, Witness from the Pulpit: Topical Sermons 1933–1980, was edited by his son Marc, a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, and The George Washington University. His younger son, Rabbi David *Saperstein, has headed the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism since 1974.
[Mark Pelavin (2nd ed.)]