Sonderling, Jacob

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SONDERLING, JACOB (1878–1964), rabbi. Sonderling was born in Lipine, Silesia. His mother was a descendant of the Yismaḥ Moshe, the founder of Hungarian Ḥasidism. An ardent Zionist from youth, Sonderling was referred to as "my fighting rabbi" by Theodor Herzl.

After studying at the University of Vienna and Breslau as well as at seminaries in Vienna, Breslau, and Berlin, Sonderling received his Ph.D. from the University of Tuebingen in 1904. In 1908, he became rabbi of Hamburg's celebrated Israelitischer Temple Verein, the birthplace of Reform Judaism but in his congregation, the bastion of Reform Judaism, men and women sat separately. He was such an eloquent orator and prominent rabbi that the Hamburg synagogue offered him the position despite its well known anti-Zionism and his advocacy of Zionism. His tenure there was interrupted when, during World War i, he served as a German Army chaplain on the staff of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who was later the president of Germany. He was the chief Jewish chaplain on the German Eastern front and spent the war years in Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, where he ministered not only to German soldiers but to Eastern European Jews he encountered. He looked like the embodiment of a rabbi, with a long beard and distinguished face that as he aged became ever more impressive. His picture appeared on postcards of the Kaiser's Army. He was called "God's word on a horse." At the war's conclusion, he returned to his pulpit and remained until 1923, when he immigrated to the United States. Within weeks of his arrival in the United States he was lecturing on Zionism and drawing large audiences to hear his passionate advocacy. He then held pulpits in Chicago, New York, and Providence, where he developed what his Los Angeles colleague called new approaches to an old tradition. Religion must appeal to the senses – all five senses – not only to the ear and to the mind.

Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1935, he founded the Center for Jewish Culture (Fairfax Temple). Where else but in Hollywood could one combine art and religion? While living and working in Los Angeles, he collaborated with many well-known musicians. He inspired Eric Zeisl to compose his requiem and Maria Jeritza to perform it. During World War ii, he discovered that Arnold Schoenberg, then a refugee from Nazi Germany, needed some money, so he commissioned him to write the Kol Nidre service. He also worked with Ernst Toch in writing the text for "Cantata of the Bitter Herbs." In 1941, he commissioned Erich W. Korngold to write the "Passover Psalm," Opus 30.

Earlier in his career he inspired Freidrich *Adler (1878–1942), who died in Auschwitz and had been a member of his congregation, to make Jewish ceremonial objects. Adler was a master of applied art who worked with furniture, architecture, and functional ware. For the Cologne Werkbund of 1914, Adler designed a synagogue interior and Torah ornaments as well as an entire group of ceremonial objects for Sabbath and holiday home observances. The remaining part of that collection is the eternal light, which is in the collection of the Spertus Museum. The first piece of ceremonial art that Adler created was a seder plate of pewter and embossed and cutout glass. Incorporated onto the seder plate is a lid that lifts up to hold the matzot, and when the lid is closed the cup of Elijah fits on top in the center of the plate. It is on loan to the Skirball Cultural Center from the family of Jacob Sonderling 363 days a year and returned each year just in time for the seder.

His colleague, Hollywood Rabbi Max Nussbaum, commented that in Los Angeles Sonderling "initiated the Seder in drama and music and the dramatization of the Bible at Friday evening services. Basically, Sonderling himself was a fusion of religion and art."

His colleagues considered him more a teacher of teachers, a rabbi of rabbis, and he held his own with some of the most dominant personalities in the Los Angeles rabbinate. He considered himself an Orthodox rabbi among the Reform and a Reform rabbi among the Orthodox. Nussbaum said, "He represented the totality of our Jewish heritage at its best."


M. Nussbaum, "Jacob Sonderling," in: Proceedings of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1965.); J. Sonderling, "Five Gates: Casual Notes for an Autobiography," in: American Jewish Archives (1964).

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]