About Rabbi Eisendrath

Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath
Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple from 1929—1943, and then President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations until his death in 1973, Maurice Eisendrath was born in Chicago in 1902. He tells us in his memoirs, Can Faith Survive? (McGraw-Hill, 1964), that he wanted to be a rabbi from age six. After completing high school in Pittsburgh, he entered Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1918 and was ordained in 1926. (In those years, students at HUC did a parallel BA degree at the University of Cincinnati, the course of study at both institutions lasting eight years.) Rabbi Eisendrath also tells us that he was unusual in that, at the time, few of the HUC students came from Reform Jewish families.  

The rabbi’s first congregation was in Charleston, West Virginia, where he remained only two years before coming to Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, then a congregation of about two hundred members on Bond Street in the downtown area.

Rabbi Eisendrath ran into difficulties in his new city even before his arrival. He had been asked by The Canadian Jewish Review to become a contibuting editor. In an article entitled “We Pacifists?” in he declared his sympathies with Judah Magnes, a Reform rabbi and the chancellor of the Hebrew University. Magnes advocated a binational state of Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Unfortunately, the article appeared only weeks after the Hebron riots of August 1929, in which a large number of Jews living in that city were massacred, a fact of which the rabbi was aware when he penned the article. What he was unaware of was the strong Zionist sympathies of the Canadian Jewish community. Members of this community called upon Holy Blossom’s board to dismiss the rabbi from his pulpit—a pulpit he had yet to occupy. They refused to do so, on the grounds that Holy Blossom had a ‘free pulpit’ and permitted its rabbi the free expression of his ideas even when, as in this instance, many within the congregation disagreed with them.

Rabbi Eisendrath remained with Holy Blossom for fourteen years, the years that saw the coming of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and the first years of World War Two.

During his time at Holy Blossom, Rabbi Eisendrath made Holy Blossom into a bastion of classical Reform Judaism. Holy Blossom had been founded in 1856 as a strictly Orthodox congregation, albeit of the English speaking British variety (as opposed to the Yiddish speaking, eastern European variety, which came to be the norm in Toronto in the 1880s).  ‘Reform’ of the liturgy and religious practice came gradually and not without conflict, championed mostly by a succession of British rabbis trained at Jews College, the Orthodox seminary in London. The last of these, Solomon Jacobs, a great conciliator, led the congregation from 1901 until his death in 1920. It was only in that year that Holy Blossom obtained its next rabbi from HUC, and it formally affiliated with the Reform movement in 1921.  

Rabbi Eisendrath advocated the removal of head coverings during services, and he continued the practice of his predecessor in making the Sunday morning service the one at which the sermon was the main attraction. Attendance was large and contained as many Christians as Jews. Holy Blossom never abandoned Saturday morning Shabbat services, but these were not as well attended, and the sermons were more in the nature of Bible study classes, often on one of the prophets, the rabbi’s favorite biblical heroes. We have only a couple of manuscripts of sermons that we can attribute to a regular Shabbat morning, and they consist of point form notes (unlike the Sunday morning sermons, which are written out in full sentence form and extensively revised). There were no Friday evening services. Worship, from the Union Prayer Book, was almost entirely in English. Rabbi Eisendrath was not an advocate of Bar Mitzvah celebrations (although members sometimes insisted on one for their sons), viewing Confirmation at sixteen years of age as the more relevant rite of passage into adulthood. (There were no Bat Mizvah celebrations until the late 1950s.) The rabbi espoused prophetic Judaism, with an emphasis on social action and inner spirituality. He was very concerned with Jewish-Christian relations and was one of the founders of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews.

Rabbi Eisendrath’s most significant contribution to Holy Blossom may have been to persuade the congregation to leave the downtown area and move north to its present location on Bathurst Street near Eglinton Avenue, in the 1920s a hinterland without any significant Jewish population. For a congregation to raise the funds to build a structure of the size that it is (one fashioned on Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue, although less than half the size) during the height of the Depression—it was opened in 1938—was no mean feat, but the rabbi saw the need for a new building as soon as he arrived in Toronto and mentions it in his first Rosh Hashana sermon.

During his time in Toronto, Rabbi Eisendrath was extremely active in the larger Jewish community in Toronto and across Canada. He participated in the activities of the United Jewish Welfare Fund, Canadian Jewish Congess, and various interfaith groups, including the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews. Several Christian ministers were invited to speak on Sunday mornings from Holy Blossom’s pulpit.

In 1943, at the age of 41, Rabbi Eisendrath was called to Cincinnati, ostensibly on a temporary basis, to take over as executive director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.  Within a very short time, it became clear to Holy Blossom’s Board of Trustees that the appointment was permanent and that the rabbi would not be returning to Toronto after the high holy days of that year.

In 1951, Rabbi Eisendrath moved the offices of the UAHC to New York. He was now the first President of the Union. During his tenure, the number of member congregations expanded greatly, the first Union camps were established, and, in 1961, the Religious Action Committee was formed.

Rabbi Eisendrath died, literally on the eve of his retirement, hours before he was to give his final ‘state of the union’ address at the Union’s Biennial in 1973, an address that was hugely critical of President Nixon’s decision to bomb Cambodia as part of the Vietnam war, a war the rabbi opposed.

Rabbi Eisendrath was an extremely erudite and well-read man. He was an exceptionally gifted orator. His sermons, which lasted well over half an hour, were known for their extensive, and often obscure, vocabulary and rhetorical devices such as alliteration, periodic sentences, and parallel structure.

In person, the rabbi was a tall, imposing man. Some people found him aloof, even cold. But he remembered names and faces well, and he took upon himself the task of visiting the families in his congregation in their homes on Sunday afternoons. He maintained his Canadian connection through his summer home on an island in Temagami, in Northern Ontario, for years after his leaving Holy Blossom.

During his time in Toronto, the congregation published Rabbi Eisendrath’s Sunday morning (and occasionally holy day) sermons in pamphlet form and sold them for ten cents. Most years, ten of these would be collected and bound into a volume that was given to the members of the Confirmation class. A selection of his sermons was published as The Never Failing Stream (Macmillan Canada, 1939). Can Faith Survive? is subtitled “The Thoughts and Afterthoughts of an American Rabbi.” In it, the rabbi quotes from some of his Toronto sermons, among others, and then proceeds to say how his thoughts on the subject of his sermon have changed (or remained he same) over the intervening years.

Rabbi Eisendrath was married before he came to Toronto to Rosa Brown, who came from a Jewish family in rural Oklahoma. She died in 1963. His second wife was the former Rita Hands, a Toronto woman and one-time confirmand whose first husband was the actor Lorne Greene. The rabbi had no children. He is buried in Holy Blossom Temple’s cemetery.


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