• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    Ernest Schwarcz in Melbourne & New York

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple and Ben Mollov appeared in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 2020, Vol. 24, Part 4.

    Post-war immigration brought many changes to Australian Jewry, generally given impetus by European Jewish intellectuals such as Rabbi Dr Ernest Schwarcz who spent most of the 1950s in Melbourne, mostly as director of Jewish Studies at the emergent day school, Mount Scopus College. Schwarcz also exerted a great influence on young adults, for whom he exemplified the bridge between Jewish and Western culture. From Australia he and his wife went to New York, where for the next 40 years he was a much-loved philosopher and educator at Queens College. Amongst his achievements was leading the growth of continuing education from near insignificance to a major phenomenon. This article looks at the Australian and American periods of his life.

    Waves of post-war immigration brought thousands of Jews to Australia and changed Australian Jewry forever. The significant figures who were responsible for the new face of Jewish Melbourne included a handful of Judaica scholars such as Rabbi Dr Ernest Schwarcz, who spent a decade in Australia, mostly as director of Jewish Studies at Mount Scopus College, and influenced a whole generation of young adults in the ways of Torah im derech eretz [the integration of Jewish and Western culture]. After leaving Australia in 1960 he built up a major educational facility in his 40 years at Queens College in New York and was a much-admired philosopher, professor and faculty dean whose students recall him with affection.

    Over the years he lived in four continents and several countries, and became adept in many languages. Born in Hungary in 1921, with a family background of Chassidic luminaries, he studied at yeshivot and at the Jewish Theological College in Budapest. He received his rabbinical ordination from the Bet Midrash L’Rabbanim in Budapest. He was badly mistreated during the Holocaust and those who knew him in later years were amazed that he could still smile. He gained degrees at the University of Budapest after studies in education, linguistics, history, sociology and philosophy and was awarded a doctorate in Philosophy. He gave philosophy tutorials at Budapest University. He briefly served the Mako congregation as its rabbi and education director. Between 1946 and 1949 he taught Bible and Hebrew at the Jewish high school in Budapest.

    In the late 1940s he and his wife Marta (a former student of his) went to Austria, possibly escaping the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1949. In Austria they ran educational programs and summer camps for Jewish refugee children and weekend seminars for young people. He also gave tutorials in Semitics at the University of Vienna and taught Bible, Hebrew and rabbinics at the Jewish day school. In 1950 he and Marta were sponsored for immigration into Australia by the communal leader Abraham (Roman) S Leibler (1910–1957, president of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies) and his wife Rachel. Marta wanted to move there because her sister, Erna, had migrated to Melbourne. The Leibler family maintained a close relationship with the Schwarczes and eased them into life in the Melbourne Jewish community.

    An amazing story is associated with the voyage to Australia. Rabbi and Mrs Schwarcz knew they would be on-board ship on the High Holydays and were relieved to find that an elderly fellow passenger had a Torah scroll, but what was still needed was a shofar. The ship docked at Genoa on the day before Rosh HaShanah but the rabbi of the local synagogue had only one shofar and would not part with it. The ship left port without a shofar but soon the captain told Rabbi Schwarcz to come up on deck to take delivery of a parcel. A helicopter hovered above and dropped a package for the rabbi – a shofar sent with the compliments of the chief rabbi of Rome. The ship continued on its way and reached Melbourne in early October 1950.


    Rabbi Dr Ernest Schwarcz with Isi Leibler

    Beginning with their arrival in Australia, Rabbi and Mrs Schwarcz built up a lively support base of Jewish students and young adults, especially B’nei Akiva graduates, such as Roman’s oldest son, Isi Leibler. They were still young people themselves, and this was one of their attractions. At the same time the rabbi became known in the adult community as a scholar, an outstanding exponent of Torah Im Derech Eretz.

    Some of the community’s rabbis possessed considerable scholarship, but few had Rabbi Schwarcz’s intellectual breadth and depth. His spoken and written English were highly impressive. For a time in the early 1950s he had a temporary appointment at the Victorian State Library, where he discovered and utilised the impressive Judaica collection. He served as an occasional dayan on the Melbourne Beth Din. He gave occasional sermons (and regular shiurim) at St. Kilda and other Melbourne synagogues. It must be noted that when asked to wear a rabbinic cap and gown, he donned borrowed robes that obviously belonged to a much taller person – but his sermons were still riveting. He researched the early history of Jewish education in Victoria and gave a lecture on this subject to the Victorian branch of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in 1957. By the late 1950s he was a fixture in the Australian rabbinic scene.

    Dr Schwarcz wrote tracts and correspondence lectures for the State Zionist Council and the National Union of Australian Jewish Students. He was involved in the United Jewish Education Board and gave addresses under their auspices. His main focus, however, was the Yavneh Institute for Jewish Studies, which he founded and directed, often teaching under its auspices at his flat in Dalgety Street, St. Kilda. His life experiences moulded much of his teaching but were not as widely known at this stage as they became in his New York period. During his years in Australia he gained extra academic qualifications in education (acquiring the degree of BEd) at the University of Melbourne.

    In the early 1950s the Mount Scopus College Council was still trying to arrive at a policy regarding the teaching of religion, Jewish history, Hebrew and Yiddish. A partisan view of the debates is given in Benzion Patkin’s history of the College[1] where Patkin was the inaugural president. It was clear that whatever the outcome of the arguments the College would need a head of Jewish studies, and though they could have brought an appointee from Israel or elsewhere, they settled on Ernest Schwarcz who was already in Melbourne and had the necessary qualifications. Three years after arriving in Melbourne he took up his new appointment at Mount Scopus on 5 October 1953.

    Patkin does not detail the changes instigated by the new director of Jewish studies but students recognised that for the first time in the short history of Mount Scopus the Jewish dimension of the College had a body and a soul. It was paradoxical that such a high-level scholar had to make decisions about relatively minor matters, but Dr Schwarcz realised that the College would only become a viable institution if every small detail of its broad-based ethos was carefully worked out and effectively presented. The community wanted the College to be Jewishly orientated but not too religious, supportive of Hebrew but not too Zionist, supportive of Yiddish but not too secular in its approach to Yiddish culture. A fine line had to be found, but it took years of sometimes rancorous debate. Despite the pressures exerted by community politicians and the internal tensions within the College, Dr Schwarcz tried to tread that fine line.[2]

    Established by the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies in 1949, the school was a community institution responsible to the sometimes irreconcilable array of ideologies that now composed Melbourne Jewry, bridging the “old” and the “new” Australians, the religious believers (of various shades) and the more secular culturalists. The previous communal agenda expressed in the now superseded Advisory Board had not taken much account of the revamped communal kaleidoscope. The new school could not alienate any part of the community, but turning communal pluralism into an educational program was never going to be easy. Abraham Feiglin as inaugural principal had more than his share of difficulties, as did Ernest Schwarcz as director of Jewish studies. Benzion Patkin acknowledged this but made only one reference to Schwarcz in his book, writing in rather understated fashion:

    Rabbi Dr E Schwarcz … was a man of undoubted intellect, but during the time he occupied the position of Director of Jewish Studies, he had quite a lot of trouble. He sincerely wanted to do his utmost to lift Jewish studies to a high standard but, unfortunately, he could not utilise his initiative in view of the policy adopted by the college – in the words of Mr Alwyn Samuel, “The Middle of the Road”.[3]

    This was apparently interpreted as not too much Hebrew or Tanach (Bible studies), not as many blessings and not too much of Jewish history.

    Patkin – a strong supporter of spoken Hebrew – casts a large modicum of blame on people in and outside the College Council who opposed making Hebrew “an integral part of the general curriculum”, which presumably means putting it on the same basis as languages such as French. Rabbi Schwarcz could not have viewed Hebrew as a “foreign” language but as an essential key to the knowledge of Judaism. Despite his linguistic skills, he would not separate Hebrew (and indeed the Bible) from Jewish religious tradition.

    Dr Schwarcz made this point in his dissertations on spiritual movements, written for students and distributed in the name of the Yavneh Institute. In a 1954 pamphlet on Prophetism, he wrote, “A true appreciation of the Bible as a source of our religion, history and literature is predicated upon the recognition that it is not an anthology of … texts or a collection of … tracts written by the like-minded believers of a religious sect. It is a ‘national literature based upon a religious foundation’.” He conducted classes at Mount Scopus as well as supervising the entire Jewish Studies program. Significantly, he constantly warned that without proper teacher training no Jewish school would ever be able to staff its faculty.

    In 1955, Dr Schwarcz was brought to Sydney by the New South Wales Board of Jewish Education to run two in-service courses for teachers,[4] but it was especially the emergent day schools that desperately needed the training courses. Later, he designed a Yeshiva University course on Curriculum Theories in Jewish Teacher Education for a class he conducted during his 1957–1959 stay in the United States, where he used the award of a scholarship to obtain a Columbia University doctorate in Education. Other courses which he conducted during this period included one in Jewish philosophy at the Chicago College of Jewish Studies. While studying in the United States, he was offered various permanent positions but returned to Melbourne with Marta in July 1959 to fulfil an undertaking he had given when awarded leave of absence by Mount Scopus. The following year they moved permanently to the United States. In his last year at Mount Scopus he served as acting principal of the College for a period during the absence overseas of Abraham Feiglin.

    Rabbi Dr Ernest Schwarcz & his wife Marta at a welcome function in 1959 for Rabbi Dr Simon Herman of the St Kilda Synagogue. Rabbi Schwarcz is standing at the far left & Marta standing at the far right. Rabbi Herman is seated on the fourth from right.

    New York

    Dr Schwarz’s impact in Australia was more or less limited to the Jewish realm at Mount Scopus College, as well as the young Jews who studied at the Yavneh Institute. Like a number of other European Jewish intellectuals who came to Australia in the late 1930s and after the Holocaust, he bore the honourable “stigma” of a refugee scholar and teacher.[5] However, his American period (1957–1959 and 1960–1997) revealed an entirely different dimension of his persona and abilities. He emerged as one of the luminaries and central faculty personalities at Queens College of the City University of New York, a well-rated public university with a diverse student body, situated in the heart of a vibrant Jewish community.

    As noted, he initially came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in 1957, and returned to take up a position as part-time adjunct professor in the Education Department at Queens College. From this relatively humble beginning, Schwarcz later became a full-time faculty member and eventually professor in the Department of Philosophy. However, this was only one aspect of what became an illustrious and distinguished career as an educator and administrator.

    To be sure, the Jewish scholarly, community and intellectual endeavour remained central to his being and activities – however, he branched out as a proud Jew and man of the world to the larger intellectual community. He taught and had a founding role in the ground-breaking Adult Continuing Education Program (ACE) and in 1967 became its director, guiding the program which began with a handful of students to one which provided a priceless opportunity of a second chance for thousands of adults seeking academic studies. Legions of students testified to the life-changing experience of this program in addition to having contact with his special persona which included his deep concern for every student.

    In time he became the Dean of the School of General Studies. In that role, he emerged as a central figure at Queens College. As Dean he consistently innovated programs within the College and beyond. One of his important projects was an exchange program with Chinese universities. During times of draconian budget cuts in the education budgets of both New York City and New York State, he proved to be extremely adept in political lobbying. A former President of the College, Allen Lee Sessoms, paid homage to him, describing his patience as “born of the trauma of the Holocaust.”[6]

    Central to his being was his commitment to Jewish studies which became a significant aspect of Queens College’s academic programs. In order to expand its impact he founded the Center for Jewish Studies which offered numerous lectures and symposiums to the larger Jewish community of Queens. Top lecturers from leading universities in the United States and Israel, with whom he established important cooperative relationships, were brought to the College due to Schwarcz’s efforts. He viewed the Center for Jewish Studies as part of the larger constellation of Ethnic Studies as a whole. He was a champion of a Black-Jewish Dialogue which he helped to initiate and in fact had been elected as Man of the Year by the Interfaith Clergy Council.

    However, his teaching of Jewish philosophy courses at the College, concomitant with his administrative responsibilities probably left the greatest imprint on the thousands of students whom he encountered. Schwarcz taught courses such as: Problems in Biblical Philosophy, Medieval Jewish Philosophy, and Problems in Modern Jewish Philosophy, in addition to special courses such as Plato and the Bible.

    Jewish students who had come from more traditional backgrounds found his approach to his subjects unique and invigorating. He had the ability to engage students in a warm dialogue aimed at promoting their growth both intellectually and personally. He combined his philosophical expertise with his rich and often unique life experiences ranging from suffering and witnessing heroism during the Holocaust to observing the struggle to maintain dignity amidst the poverty of India. With this background he offered his students deep insights into the giants of Jewish philosophy and the issues which they sought to confront. He constantly sought to emphasise to his students the interaction between Jewish and general philosophy and historical processes.[7]

    Despite having emerged as a man of the larger world, Schwarcz continued his deep (foundational) involvement with the Jewish community and Torah study. A respected member of the Young Israel of Hillcrest, he hosted for many years a Shabbat Talmud shi’ur in his home. He also organised a weekly Talmud seminar in his office at the University for the many observant (and even non-observant) faculty at the College. Although he retired as Dean of the School of General Studies in 1992, he still remained active on campus. Following his tragic death in 1997 at the age of 76, when hit by a car near his home in Fresh Meadows, Queens, the Queens College Center for Jewish Studies published a memorial album to mark the inauguration of the Ernest Schwarcz Eminent Visiting Professorship in Jewish Philosophy.

    The many accolades and remembrances of students and colleagues bear testimony to the influence which he had on so many, both Jews and non-Jews. A common theme articulated by his students was his concern for everyone, and the life changing effect of association with him as many saw him as their mentor and friend. A close non-Jewish colleague described him as a dreamer who was always “searching for a new challenge” yet constantly grounded in reality and above all “centered in Judaism with a profound unwavering faith in God.” A Jewish student aptly described his core mission as placing the “teachings of Judaism before the nations of the world”.[8]

    His journey from post-war Hungary and the searing impact of the Holocaust, through to Mount Scopus College in Melbourne and finally to Queens College in New York City, and his emergence as both Judaica scholar and teacher to man of the world who bridged the worlds of both study and action and of university and community, bears testament to the ability of an outstanding individual to constantly grow and reinvent himself.

    His lifetime achievements would not have been possible without the devoted support of Marta who, after making Aliyah, lived in Ahad HaAm Street in Jerusalem, becoming a fixture in the Jerusalem community, and was ultimately laid to rest alongside him on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He had extensive family ties in Israel including a brother, Professor Moshe Schwarcz, who established the Department of General and Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Rabbi Dr Schwarcz’s memory was further recognised by the establishment of the Ernest and Marta Schwarcz Institute for Judaism, Ethics and Democracy at Bet Morasha, Jerusalem. Although Ernest Schwarcz had no biological children, he served as a spiritual father and mentor to multitudes of young people throughout the world.

    The authors express warm thanks to Isi Leibler, Greer Fay Cashman and the Mount Scopus College archive department for their assistance and support.

    1. Benzion Patkin, Heritage and Tradition: The Emergence of Mount Scopus College, Melbourne, Hawthorn Press, 1972.

    2. Brian M Bullivant, Introduction: “The Force of Tradition in Education” in The Way of Tradition: Life in an Orthodox Jewish School, Melbourne, ACER, 1978.

    3. Patkin, Heritage and Tradition, p.337.

    4. Maurice H. Kellerman, NSW Board of Jewish Education: History 1909–1979, Sydney, NSW Board of Jewish Education, 1980, p.107.

    5. Michael Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees, 1933–1948, Sydney, Crown Helm, 1985.

    6. “A Memorial Tribute to Dean Ernest Schwarcz: On the Occasion of the Establishment of The Ernest Schwarcz Eminent Visiting Professorship in Jewish Philosophy. The Queens College Center for Jewish Studies”, September 2000, p.11.

    7. Ben Mollov, the author of the section on New York, was a student of Dr Schwarcz at Queens College. He was similarly inspired and went on to become a lecturer in conflict management and international relations at Bar-Ilan University, Israel (editor’s note).

    8. “A Memorial Tribute to Dean Ernest Schwarcz”, p.16.

    Comments are closed.