The Torah of Skirball
By Rabbi Joshua Weinberg
“Rabbi Tarfon and some elders were reclining in an upper chamber in the house of Nitza in Lod when this question came up: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The others then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action.”
– BT Kiddushin 40b
“So who was Eisendrath anyway? And why was this program named for him?” I inquired. Having arrived in Israel as a student on the Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE) 20 years ago, my search for answers was in full swing. Casually walking into his office, I approached Rabbi Hank Skirball. He quickly began to pepper me with stories, and his point was clear. “The funny thing,” he reminisced, “is that Eisendrath was no great Zionist at all. We [Rabbi Sam Cooke and I] named the program after him in order to get him to come to Israel!” Now, over five decades and thousands of students later, EIE has become one of the central producers of Reform Zionists, and we owe much of that to Rabbi Skirball.
Being a Zionist then meant insisting on coming to Israel, as Hank did in 1952, at the risk of losing his spot as a student at the Hebrew Union College. It was that spirit that led him to go on to create and direct numerous Reform Israel programs, to represent the Reform movement as Chair of the Department of Education and Culture at the World Zionist Organization, and to help create two Reform kibbutzim in the Negev.
Skirball, together with a few other activists, including Rabbi Sam Cooke, Rabbi Alan Levine, Rabbi Dick Hirsch, and notably the late Rabbi Stephen Schafer, who passed away this past November 24th, set a Zionist agenda for the Reform movement.
“If I listened to everyone who told us that this was a bad idea, none of this would be here. Being a Zionist is all about not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”
Today we have the privilege of honoring Rabbi Skirball at ARZA’s biennial reception for all that he has contributed to Israel and to the Jewish people. I am but one student who was influenced and mentored by Hank over several decades and who was privileged to see Israel through his teaching. Hank never misses an opportunity to remind us: “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor, V’lo Atah Ben Horein L’hibateyl Mimena –It is not your responsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) Commentating on this well-known adage, Hank teaches that: “Everyone has to try and live in such a way that he and she makes the world a little bit better because he or she was here.” We know that Hank has made the world better for us, and as Zionists we must take his Torah and turn it into action.
Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).