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Interview with: Rabbi Samuel Karff
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: December 4, 2007
DG: Today is December 4. We are in the offices of Rabbi Samuel Karff who we are interviewing for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Rabbi?
SK: I am fine, David.
DG: Great. We want to talk about your early life, your early career as a rabbi, how you came to Houston and then, especially the time that you spent here in Houston and your impact on Houston and Houston's impact on you. So, why don't you start with your early life? Where were you born? Tell us about your childhood.
SK: I was born in
Philadelphia. I am a Yankee, a transplanted Yankee. I spent my elementary school years and my junior high and my high school years in Philadelphia. Enjoyed sports and enjoyed academic achievement. It was as important for me to hit a home run over the right field fence as it was to get an A on an exam. And for a while, I was able to do pretty much of both until the athletic part deteriorated very, very rapidly and never been enable me to fulfill my initial fantasies of possibly becoming a professional ballplayer. But, in any case, I had a good life and a good childhood in Philadelphia. I went away to college, went to Harvard, and those were great years. I studied lots of things but I minored in philosophy and majored in a department that was called social relations which attempted to integrate sociology, psychology, clinical psychology, social psychology and anthropology, to develop a unified theory of human behavior. It was a fascinating experience, too. When I went to Harvard, I was going to go into public service, the diplomatic corps or into radio broadcasting. In those days, it was radio. But through a conversation with the Hillel director of the campus, Jewish campus minister, the rabbi, I began to recognize that my religious proclivities . . . I was religious from my early childhood and my deep Jewish roots and commitment and my interest in people and the enjoyment of teaching and persuading and counseling made the possibility of being a rabbi very promising. So, I accelerated my years at Harvard because I was not sure that I was going to make it at seminary and I just did not want to think that I was pressured because of the time frame to become financially independent, so I went through Harvard in 3 years and then I went to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and discovered much to my delight that it was good. I really enjoyed my advanced Judaic studies. I particularly liked Midrash or Aggadah which is the non-legal portions of Jewish tradition -- the stories, the narratives, which, to me, were a key to understanding Jewish theology. In fact, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on rabbinic theology reflected in the narratives of the Talmud and Midrash literature.
When I was ordained in 1956, I went into the Air Force chaplaincy for 2 years and was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, in July, without air-conditioning in our barracks. That was a baptism of fire, if I can mix my metaphors. But an interesting experience. I had never been in Texas before. I was impressed by the hospitality and by the highway system which then seemed so refreshingly new and clean compared to the old, broken down infrastructure in the northeast. After I finished my stint . . . well, I finished my stint in the Air Force after serving one Passover at Goose Bay, Labrador, the coast of which is bleak enough to blight any man's soul, but these were Jewish airmen helicoptered in from the Arctic Circle and they felt like they were going out of Egypt to be at the Seder, so it was a marvelous experience. You did not have to worry about refrigerating the gefilte fish. All you had to do was put it outside. It was taken care of. I was there about 10 days, or 8 days. Then, my main address was Montgomery, Alabama at Maxwell Air Force Base which was Air University that had 250 bird colonels on the base at any one time. I enjoyed my Air Force experience, too, because it enabled me to interact with a segment of America that I did not normally interact with in my college days and in my youth. It was very illuminating.
When I finished my stint in the Air Force, I accepted an assistantship in Hartford, Connecticut where I got met wife, Joan. We were there for 2 years and then my first solo pulpit was in Flint, Michigan. In those days, Flint was a very prosperous Buick-based town. It no longer is. After 2 years, I was invited to become senior rabbi of a historic congregation in Chicago, Chicago Sinai Congregation, which was the oldest reformed congregation in Chicago. And while I was there, I also taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School. My special course was in intellectual history of Judaism, both in Europe and modern Judaism, both in Europe and in the United States.
In 1975 . . . well, the years in Chicago, I should say, were very heady. We got there in 1962 and were there until 1975. The assassination of both Kennedys, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, the demonstrations at the 1968 Convention, the riots that took place, the students taking over the administration building at the University of Chicago. In fact, I bumped into Bill Daley who was Mayor Daley's son and was Secretary of Commerce in the, I think Carter Administration or Clinton Administration, and I told him of the years that we were in. I said, "You know, your brother [who is now mayor of Chicago] had it a lot easier than your father." I knew his father. And he said, "Rabbi, I tell my brother that every day."
They were great years. We loved Chicago. I was a vice-chair of the Chicago Conference on Religion and Race. Those were the times when integration issues were coming to the fore and Martin Luther King was bringing his marches to Chicago and there was a lot of negotiation that had to take place. It was nice being part of an attempt to bring America beyond that hurdle of overt racial discrimination. In 1975, we were invited to come to Houston. We never lived in the southwest. I was excited by the prospect of spending years in a place where we had not been before. I was impressed by the younger leadership that was taking over the congregation and that wanted to renew it and knew that I would be making some changes, and they seemed to welcome them. So, we came down to Houston and while in Houston, I was also invited to teach in the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University where I taught for 22 years. When I retired from the University, when I retired from Beth Israel in 1999, after 24 years, I was invited to come here and develop a program in medical humanities or spirituality in medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center, particularly centered first at the School of Public Health and now centered at the medical school. And I have enjoyed that second vocation immensely. I had no idea in the world what I would be doing after I retired from the congregation but this has been a great opportunity to teach future physicians that mastery of biomedicine is not enough. You need to connect with the person and the patient and the quality of that connection can actually affect medical outcome. That has been a major mantra of my service here and my teaching here. I also developed a program called Sacred Vocation which was intended to be a program to nurture the spirit of those who deal with patients in a hospital setting particularly. My premise was that if you want these people to nurture the patient, you have got to nurture the caregiver. This is a nurturing program for caregivers, to help them relate their work to what gives meaning to their life. We started with patient care assistance. We did a pilot program at St. Luke's and then we exposed 200 patient care techs, as they call them, in Baylor Hospital in Dallas to the program and the CEO said it was the most important intervention for patient satisfaction that they had in 10 years. So, we are now doing this and offering it to different hospitals. We now do it with medical residents as well right here at our medical school and they have responded extremely favorably to it. In fact, their recommendation was that every medical resident should be exposed to this Sacred Vocation program. They are very vulnerable to burnout during the residency years. This is a nurturing program for them. And that is where I am.
DG: That was a terrific narrative. I want to go back and focus on some of the highlights. The decision to become a rabbi you described briefly. Some clergy will refer to it as a calling, others to a realization, others just sort of finding a place where they could pursue their interests. What was it for you and what role did your family play in that? You mentioned that you grew up with an awareness.
SK: Well, my parents were very much rooted in the Jewish life and the Jewish community. My mother was born in Jerusalem and my father was born in Russia where, his family during the czarist era, were very prosperous grain merchants - my grandfather for whom I am named. His name was Samuel, was a very active Zionist in Russia. After the 1905 Russo-Japanese war, he saw the handwriting on the wall and the pogroms and he left Russia and everything there to become one of the founders of Tel-Aviv. He died of malaria or typhus, typhoid fever, just before the first World War. My mother was born in Jerusalem. Her grandmother was born in Galilee. They came over to the United States in the 1920s because there was Depression in the Middle East at that time and they thought they would stay here for a few years. My great-uncle was in Philadelphia so they landed in Philadelphia. They visited Israel many times, they did during their lifetime. They stayed here and I was born in Philadelphia. But our home . . . my father was a Haskalah Jew. He was very interested in Jewish culture and in the rebirth of a Jewish state. And Hebrew, I grew up speaking Hebrew as well as English. But he was not very religious. My mother had come from an orthodox home and she was the more religious person in the family. So, I have the combination of the two.
What was my decision to become a rabbi? I would say it was a combination of the two dimensions that you mentioned. On the one hand, it seemed like a great bringing together of my values, my interests and my competencies. I enjoyed public speaking, for example, from my childhood on. I was on the debate team at Harvard and on the debate team in high school. I enjoyed teaching very much. And I seemed to have some skill in counseling. So, it was a coming together of what I discovered were my competencies and my values but as I got into it deeper and deeper, I realized that there is a Rabbinic statement that for such a calling as this, for such a time as this, were you created. And I reached the point early on where I could not imagine myself doing anything else. It just seemed that this was what I was called to do with my life, and I have been a very happy rabbi. I have been very fortunate with my congregations and look back on my rabbinate with great pleasure. My congregation has afforded me the opportunity to renew myself by having some mini-sabbaticals in the summertime. I was able to write 3 books and feel that I had some impact on many lives. I was also active in the community and being active in the community has been a very important dimension of my rabbinate from the start here in Houston. I told you about Chicago. Here in Houston, together with Bishop Fiorenza, I was one of the leaders of the campaigning to end homelessness in Houston. We did not quite succeed but we made a start in trying to help the homeless reach a different situation, a situation of being able to support themselves, no longer being on the streets. We had some victories along the way. I have been very much involved in the Coalition for Mutual Respect which is sponsored by the ADL and which brings together an interfaith group of civic people, business people, and clergy to monitor the level of multicultural code systems and mutual respect that is present in our city. It has been a watchdog, as it were, and I have been very pleased to have been part of that and I still am.
Houston has been very good to us. I love Houston. I think it is a great city. It is a wonderful combination of natives and immigrants who have enriched this place. There is greater concern here for what you bring to the table than for who your parents were or your grandparents. It is a very open city. It is a city where the civic leadership, I think, has a great sense of responsibility to the city; where it is not unusual for some Fortune 500 company CEOs to answer their own phones when you call them at home. I won't brag about the weather but apart from the weather . . . and winters are nice but we pay heavy dues for those winters. In spite of the weather, it is a great city and it has been a wonderful place for us to be, and we are very grateful for it.
DG: I am curious about some of the career decisions that you have made. It is unusual to find somebody who has had a successful pulpit of east as we say, that decides to come south. Being in situations in which you try to sort of encourage people to come south, for a lot of people, the career path for a rabbi sort of has the end of the rainbow an important congregation in Chicago and you were there a significant amount of time . . .
SK: I was there for 12 years. What was happening in Chicago, though we loved it and I loved teaching at the University, and if I were teaching full-time at the University and that were my total life, we would have stayed in Chicago. But we were in the Hyde Park community which was surrounded by black ghettos and there was a white flight to the northern suburbs, so that I found myself at the age of 41 with a congregation that I could see the handwriting on the wall. The religious scroll was getting smaller and smaller. I was conducting more funerals than weddings and I said to myself, I want a congregation that is in the city which is heterogeneous rather than homogeneous, but I want a congregation with all the age groups represented and where I would have some opportunity to have an influence on the leadership community who were represented in the congregation. And when Houston came on the horizon, it took me 3 months to make my decision and they were very patient with me, but I decided that this was a good place to spend the rest of my rabbinate. Houston was a newer city. It seemed to have great potential both in terms of cultural enrichment. I was impressed by Rice University and I was impressed by the people who were on the selection committee that I interacted with.
DG: Do you remember the names of the people?
SK: Sure. Melvyn Wolff was there and Alfred Friedlander was there and Jack Lapin was there. It is a long time ago. But those were my first presidents, as it were. Alfred Friedlander was president when I came and Melvyn Wolff became president and Jack Lapin became president. David Toomim became president. Alan Rauch. Arthur Schechter.
DG: Your early career as a rabbi, when you are in the seminary and you see all the different ways of being a rabbi, the career that you had, was it the one that you envisioned when you were there at seminary? Did you have a concept of what you wanted to do as a rabbi? Were you able to do it?
SK: That is a good question. I was always academically oriented. That is why I got a doctorate after my ordination. But I always wanted to be a congregational rabbi. I felt that that was the opportunity to have the greatest impact on the retail level, on the ground level, and I just loved the road definition of a rabbi, a congregational rabbi. I love to teach, I love to preach, I love to counsel, I love to tell stories to children. I enjoyed making hospital visits. I found that I could be helpful to people in times of sorrow and to add some sanctity and significance to their times of joy. What could be more fulfilling than that? So, when I had opportunities to be president of a seminary and to be one of the top executives of the Union for the American Hebrew Congregations out of Fifth Avenue in New York, I turned them down because I felt that this was my calling. But, I would not have been happy if I did not have an opportunity to teach on a college level and fortunately, I was able to do that in Chicago. In fact, before I went to the University of Chicago, I taught for one year at Notre Dame. I was the first rabbi to teach at Notre Dame. They called me Rabbi McCarfey! But being able to teach at Rice here was also very satisfying. I think I would have missed something if that dimension were not available to me.
DG: You mentioned the teaching and you mentioned the counseling rabbi role, the congregational rabbi. You also have been active though in the community and that does not always come with the job description. What was your attraction to social justice?
SK: Well, I have always felt that a very important dimension of Judaism is a commitment, to ______, to righteousness and to fairness that we owe for what we have and that we have a responsibility to those who are less privileged than we are, not in a paternalistic way but the highest form of staca (sp?), of charity. Charitable giving in Judaism is to help the person assume a position of dignity, being able to support themselves, giving to them without necessarily identifying yourself or claiming credit for it. It is your obligation. It is a mitzvah, as we say, and I absorbed that very early on. Also, I flirted with the idea of Israel when I was in high school. Israel was born in 1948 and I graduated from high school in 1949. The prospect of making a life in Israel was inviting for a while but I enjoy living in a community and not ghettoizing myself. I enjoyed being part of a multicultural, multireligious society. I enjoy my friendships with non-Jews as much as I enjoy my friendships with Jews. I have been privileged to be invited, to be a bridge maker between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish community. Even 9 years after my retirement from Beth Israel, I am invited this January to speak to nurses and chaplains and hospital personnel at St. Joseph Medical Center. In February, I am speaking at Christ Cathedral. In March, I am doing a major presentation at a conference sponsored by St. Thomas University. In April, I am speaking at St. Martin's Episcopal Church. On April 18, I will be at St. Mary's Seminary doing something. So, even 9 years after my retirement, I am still invited to do this and I am very grateful for it because I enjoy being a self-respecting Jew in the larger world.
DG: You mentioned that you taught at Notre Dame and you taught at Chicago Divinity School, so early in your life, there were some interfaith activities.
SK: Oh, absolutely.
DG: It is one thing to do interfaith in Philadelphia up east; it is another thing to do it in Houston, Texas.
DG: In the Air Force, you were definitely a minority?
DG: You go to the Divinity School. What drew you to that? What was that experience like? What is that like in Houston, Texas? What are interfaith activities? What are interfaith relations like in Houston, Texas? And I am thinking particularly of it as opposed to up north where being Jewish does not make you quite as unique as it does down here.
SK: Right. I think the experience has been different here than it would be up east. There are more opportunities to do it in Houston. There would be a greater tendency to interact within your own community in Philadelphia where there were 250,000 or 300,000 Jews. In Houston, there may be 50,000 Jews and maybe that is an exaggeration. I have found that the non-Jewish community respects a Jew who respects himself. I have never felt that I was walking on eggs when I am in Christian company. I am who I am. I am proud of whom I am but I have respect for those who have found meaning and faith in other traditions. I have really not experienced rejection. I have experienced welcoming that is almost a sense of almost special delight.
I don't know why this is coming to me but during the first inaugural of the second President Bush, I was invited to participate in that though I am not a Republican, I am an Independent. But for some reason, I was invited to be part of it. And on Sunday morning, there was a great service for the President's family and the Cabinet and so forth at the Washington Cathedral, which is a magnificent cathedral. I was invited to be 1 of 13 clergy who participated in that service which included the Cardinal, Archbishop of Washington, the head of the Greek Orthodox church in the United States, and so on. I was invited to read from the book of Jeremiah in Hebrew a passage that Laura Bush liked. I just had the feeling as I was there, it was like a love feast. When I walked off that . . . I was going to say beam . . . the altar, I was just being embraced by the looks. They were just so glad that I was there, that I was present. And that is the general feeling that I have had when I have been among non-Jews as a practicing faithful Jew.
DG: Let's talk specifically about your early years at Beth Israel. Beth Israel was the first congregation established in Texas, although it was originally established as an Orthodox congregation. I say that for the record, for the tape. So, it is an important congregation in Texas and to Houston. You arrived here in 1975. What was Houston like in 1975, your earliest memories?
SK: Well, in 1975, Houston was far from what it is today but it did not take too much imagination to see that it was a city on the move. When we came here, I think the only high rises that I recall were the one on Main which Leopold Meyer lived in. . . and the Willow Wick high rise. I mean, Galleria wasn't the Galleria. I think the Galleria was already present but all those high rises were not there. People were not living downtown. The downtown was pretty dead, even commercially, it was losing its presence. So, Houston has become I think much more cosmopolitan since we arrived here and the years following our arrival here through the mass immigration that took place during those years. It was stopped in the 1980s when we had kind of a depression here. But then resumed again. We overcame that. I was very impressed with the way the community rallied together to overcome that major economic setback. Houston apparently did not experience a depression in 1929 because of the oil boom but this was the closest thing to Houston's experiencing a depression and, in fact, one prominent member of my congregation committed suicide because of economic reverses. It was a hard time for many people who thought that the bubble could not burst and it would just go higher and higher and higher. And yet, we became much more diversified after that and we did not allow that setback to defeat us. I was very impressed with that resiliency in Houston.
The congregation itself was not where I wanted it to be when I came here and I made that pretty clear to the leadership. I was probably more to the center of a centrists in terms of Jewish observance and so forth than my predecessors had been but I felt that that was just a sign of the times. They had responded, I do believe honestly that what is called classic reform, responded very seriously and successfully to the needs of that era but that our present era required different forms and more appreciation of tradition within the framework of making choices and not being mandated to a specific regiment of Jewish observance. But an opportunity to reclaim some of the observances that an earlier generation had abandoned or forsaken, in many cases, for good reason at that time. At that time, the major concern that brought about classic reform in Europe was the rigidity of orthodoxy, and the wanting to be both Jewish and to enter the larger society. So, the question then was how can I practice a Judaism which does not keep me from being fully integrated into the larger society? Well, we are now fully integrated with the larger society. That is not the issue. The issue is our society is so open, there are so many options that we are all Jews by choice, not by fate, at least in America at this time. And therefore, the operative question is not how can we practice a Judaism which enables us to enter the larger society - we are in the larger society. The question is how can we develop a Judaism that is distinctive enough, that is compelling enough, that is spiritually enriching enough to make our children want to be Jewish in this open society? And I think the younger leadership at Beth Israel appreciated that. I was not a radical. I respected . . . I did not want people to feel like strangers in their own synagogue. I earned their trust before I encouraged them to make certain changes. One of the things that I am proudest of is the Reform Day School, the Schlenker School. There were very few day schools in the reform movement when we started. It seemed like a radical idea and some of my best friends opposed it in the congregation, but to their credit, they knew how badly I wanted it and how much I believed in it, and they trusted me enough not to oppose it and finally, to support it, even to give money to it. We had some lean days. There was some question about whether it could survive or not. But now, some of the very people who opposed it are proud that their grandchildren are attending Schlenker School, so I feel vindicated.
DG: Who were your peers in 1975 when you came here and I am thinking in terms of in the Jewish community and in the broader community and just put us in the context of who else was in Houston with the pulpit at that time.
SK: Well, Rabbi Malev passed away, had already died when I came, I think. Rabbi Segel was then active at Beth Yeshurun. Bob Kahn was very active at Temple Emmanu El and I regarded him as a rabbi's rabbi. I had great respect for him. And, in a sense, I followed in his footsteps. He was president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and I became president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. That was a wonderful experience, too, to be recognized by your peers for that position. I had some interesting experiences during those 2 years. In the United Orthodox, Rabbi Radinsky was not yet here. There was another rabbi whose name I am blocking on who was the rabbi at United Orthodox. There were relatively very few congregations in those days. Brith Shalom was here and Herb Yoskowitz was the rabbi at Brith Shalom at the time. I do not think there were any other congregations in town. The Lubavitch was just getting started here. Young Israel was just getting started here. But those were my peers in the clergy, in the Jewish clergy.
In the Christian clergy, I worked closely with Bishop Fiorenza, Archbishop Fiorenza. We became real friends. And I worked very closely with Bill Lawson, the black minister. And, to this day, I feel very close to him. I also was close to the senior minister at the Presbyterian church in Memorial whose name escapes me at this time. That is one of the costs of being 76 years old. Not all the names come to me. But I remember I was also very close to the rector of Christ Cathedral downtown, Dean Taylor. Those were my peers in the clergy at that time.
DG: Do you remember your first sermon at Beth Israel after you had accepted the position?
SK: I don't.
DG: Do you remember the kind of issues that you talked about and how those issues might have changed over the 25 years? I mean, you have talked about sort of redefining reform Judaism for that congregation but what were the other issues, challenges, specific things that you felt that you needed to address from the pulpit for your congregation?
SK: Well, my predecessor was originally a member of the American Council for Judaism which was anti-Zionist. The congregation was just . . . some members of the congregation were very active in that dimension of the Jewish community. But still, the congregation as a whole needed to be educated on the importance of our relationship to Israel and how it did not compromise our commitment to this country. And that was an issue that I spoke to. I spoke to the issue of the Jewish community being active in the larger community and not only being concerned with Jewish issues or with the issues that affected . . . that we could now afford the luxury and we had the obligation to put our oar in and make a difference to and contribute to the larger society. I encouraged more of our members to do that. That was another major thrust of mine. [end of side 1]
SK: At this moment, I am not thinking of how many others though I gave many sermons. Some of my concerns . . . actually, I do not know if you would be interested in doing this. It would not affect your film record but my book, The Soul of The Rav, contained addresses that I was privileged to give at certain significant times, whether it was speaking to the ordination class at Hebrew Union College or speaking at Harvard's Memorial Church at the 350th anniversary of Harvard. Speaking about what it was like to be a Jewish student at Harvard in the early 1950s, was very different from being a Jewish student today. I spoke about the need for moving beyond a Judaism that is based on defending ourselves against anti-Semitism or strictly ethnic Judaism, I felt that there was a spiritual hunger in the country that we were going through that and were still in that, in the throes of that, and that Jewish young people need to feel that their own faith is spiritually nourishing to them, that it does not just speak about how we have enemies that we have to oppose but how Judaism nourishes our soul and responds to our needs as human beings who suffer and are defeated at times and so on. So, I made a plea for deepening our spirituality as Jews. That was another one of my thrusts as a rabbi and as a preacher.
DG: What do you think is unique about being Jewish in Houston, Texas? You have been at other places. What is it about the unique personality and culture of Houston that impacts, or that helps shape a Jewish experience in Houston, Texas?
SK: I think the fact that we are a relatively small community has made us feel more cohesive. I think because we are a prosperous city that has done well generally, there has not been that intense competition for membership among the various congregations which leads to hostility among the rabbis. The rabbis generally have had a very collegial relationship with each other here, which is less true in some of the older cities. And the other thing is that you feel like you are part of a large family. We are small enough so that events are circulated by our own version of email, Jewish email, where things are just broadcast without being broadcast all over the community. When someone dies, when someone has an accomplishment of some kind. I have gone to minyans where I have felt that there was great representation on the part of the larger community. It was not just from that person's synagogue. And a feeling of familial ties that transcends membership in any one congregation. I have felt that the way I have been received by Jews who belong to other congregations in the community. I think that is true. Of all that I have just said, it is truer here than it would have been at Philadelphia. Certainly, truer than it would have been in New York. And also, for a rabbi to be active, really active and find a place in the larger civic community is a lot easier in a city like Houston than it would be in a city like New York.
DG: In the 25 years that you were rabbi at Beth Israel and in the years subsequent, what do you think is the contribution that Jews have made to Houston, either to its growth or to the development of its character? If there has been a contribution, how would you define it?
SK: I think one of the contributions that Jews have made to Houston is that we have been, I think, disproportionately represented in the support of the arts in this community, with some exceptions but certainly I think we have been very well represented in that. I think the Jewish community has been very self respecting and in that sense, has earned the respect of the larger non-Jewish community. I think it is phenomenal the degree of large corporate support, non-Jewish support, that goes to the Holocaust Museum. That doesn't just happen. I think that happens from the kind of modeling and the kind of living that earns the respect of the non-Jewish community. And I myself have, not that there aren't as my minister friends tell me woefully, not that there aren't certain statements in locker rooms in some of the country clubs that show a vestigial anti-Semitism, but generally, I think there is enormous respect for the Jewish community, for our capacity to be successful when given an opportunity to make it. We have been represented disproportionately in the upper middle class of this city for our numbers and I think in that sense, we have contributed to the economic status of this community disproportionately to our numbers.
DG: From a personal standpoint, your 25 years as rabbi, as Rabbi Emeritus and the years since then now here at the health center, of what are you most proud of your time spent here in Houston in terms of accomplishment or experience?
SK: Well, I am proud of the bridges that I built with the non-Jewish community. I am proud of helping members of my own Jewish community feel better about who they are and prouder of who they are. I am proud of the teaching that I have been able to do, influencing a younger generation. Two of my students at Rice, Christian students, converted to Judaism and one became a rabbi. It is not something that I intended and it is not something that I tried. I certainly did not proselytize but I felt that I had that kind of impact through my teaching. I am proud of what I have done here at the Health Science Center. I started with a one person operation. We call that program the Health and Human Spirit Program. It seemed to grow beyond my capacities to handle it because I did not have fire in my belly to build a program at this stage of my life. I did not want to minister to responsibilities. I brought in the person who is now the director of what has come to be called the McGovern Center for Health, Humanities and the Human Spirit, which has so far gotten a $5.5 million grant from the McGovern Foundation. The Sacred Vocation Program that I have mentioned to you, I think, as they say, has legs and it is something that will outlive my presence here when I finally retire from this position. So, I am proud of the Schlenker School. That was one of the hardest but one of the most meaningful achievements that I had at Beth Israel.
DG: Years from now, when people look at this interview and they look at our database of interviews, from your perspective, what do you think is important for future generations to know about our city during this time period? Since 1975 when you have had a position as a spiritual leader in our community, you have witnessed events, you have helped shape events, you guided a congregation through those events, what is it that is important for us to know about our city, to sort of help define our future?
SK: I think that we are a very heterogeneous city. We are now a microcosm of America and the world. I think we have handled it comparatively well. This city integrated its public facilities without any riots through a benign conspiracy of the white power establishment, the black leadership and the press, the media. That story was told by my colleague who assumed my role as director of McGovern Center. He was also a film maker and that film was shown on 55 PBS stations. It is a wonderful film that documents that quiet revolution where overnight, public facilities in Houston became integrated without incident. That is a great accomplishment and that demonstrates wisdom and forbearance on all parts and coexistence, the commitment to coexistence. So, I think it should be known that this formerly Anglo city has handled its metamorphosis into a very multicultural community pretty well, comparatively well, certainly compared with other communities around the country. I think it is also important that future generations realize that this has been a city that has been open and created opportunities for persons depending on what they can bring to the table, as I said earlier. Not focusing on what their ancestry was, which I think is another quality of Houston and it is a quality that still does not exist in some of the older cities in this country. And I think it is a city that has been optimistic in its spirit. It did not allow itself to despair, even when we experienced something that was radically new for Houston and that was the closest thing to a recession/depression in the early 1980s.
DG: We did not mention your daughters. We mentioned your wife. We should mention your daughters. Is there anything else that I have not asked you that you were hoping to say for this occasion?
SK: No, I must confess that I have not given . . . I was relying on you, David, to create the agenda, so I have not pondered what I wanted to say here today. Of course, my wife and I have been married 48 years. I have been so grateful and so blessed. I have 3 daughters, all strong women who live in Houston within 10 minutes of our home so that my 7 grandchildren . . . well 6 of them, the 7th is graduating from Cornell this year . . . but we have 2 who have not become bar mitzvah'd yet so we have a span. I feel very blessed. If I died today, I would not feel that I had been cheated.
DG: Thank you very much for your time.
SK: Thank you, David.