TORONTO — “Basically, age is not a disease,” said Rabbi Erwin Schild, who celebrated his 90th birthday March 9 with family, and again at Adath Israel Congregation, where he is rabbi emeritus, on a recent Shabbat.
Rabbi Erwin Schild
On the second occasion, he shared with congregants his thoughts on aging, as expressed in a 1982 sermon that appears in the first of his three books, World Through My Window.
“We must live each day fully, not as if it was our last, but as if it was our only one,” the rabbi reaffirmed.
Referring to a sermon he gave 10 years ago for his 80th birthday, Rabbi Schild said that people who “can still grow and change” remain young regardless of their chronological age.
Sixty-three years after becoming Adath Israel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Schild can still be found most days in his study at the shul, which has grown to some 1,700 families from less than 200 when he started there.
He still gives sermons on occasion and officiates at some life cycle events.
“Unfortunately, mostly funerals,” he added wryly.
As well, he teaches a weekly text-based study group that he calls Eclectic Torah.
“I enjoy that very much,” said the rabbi, who has also led more than 30 trips to Israel.
Last winter, in December 2008, Rabbi Schild experienced a setback when he fell on the ice, fracturing his left hip and shoulder. He credits his recovery – which, he noted, “amazed some people” – in part to the fact that he was a jogger from the late 1950s until five years ago, when he switched to walking for exercise.
“We shouldn’t say that certain things are inevitable. A lot depends on your mental attitude,” he told The CJN.
The rabbi said he still can’t identify “as an aged person. If I sit on a bus or subway and I see an elderly person, I get up and offer my seat, and I’m always surprised if somebody gets up for me.
“You have to live for others,” Rabbi Schild said. “You have to try to – it sounds trite – to make the world a better place.”
His own efforts in that regard include a long history of interfaith work, both locally and abroad.
A regular visitor to Germany following an initial invitation in 1982, Rabbi Schild has spoken to many Christian groups there about Judaism and his own personal history.
A native of Cologne, the future rabbi was imprisoned briefly in Dachau in 1938 before going to Britain on a student visa and later entering Canada as an enemy alien. He spent two years in an internment camp before starting yeshiva studies in Toronto.
Rabbi Schild is a member of the Order of Canada, and received a similar honour from the German government in 2000, in recognition of his contributions to Jewish-Christian dialogue in Germany.
He said he would probably return to Germany this year or next, but recently turned down three invitations to speak there. Instead, he and his wife will attend two family bar mitzvahs: their great-grandson’s and their great-great-nephew’s.
“I held this to be more important,” he said.
In his own family, in addition to the Conservative Judaism the rabbi represents, there is a “very Orthodox” branch, as well as a Reconstructionist one.
“The resurgence of Orthodoxy has helped the entire community remain true to our tradition,” Rabbi Schild said. “Even the liberal movements are influenced by the resurgence of strictly halachic Judaism.”
However, he warned of the “danger of Judaism splitting into sects” and eventually no longer being able to form a community. He attributes the risk partly to “the exclusivity of some of the Orthodox, and the lack of appreciation, on the part of the liberal Jews, of the necessity that we must remain one people.”
Rabbi Schild believes that non-Orthodox denominations shouldn’t do anything to create a breach between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities.
At the same time, he said, the Orthodox “should realize that many Jews are what they are. They’re liberal not because they want to tear down Judaism or diminish it, but they want to maximize it, making it more relevant to their lives. There has to be more mutual recognition that we all have a job to do.
“We should remember that we are still one Jewish people, and our liberalism should not go so far as to alienate them completely.”
He noted that the “hardening of the lines, and the erecting of barriers that are difficult to cross” has become significant. A case in point: recently he came across a decade-old contract to sell chametz signed by himself and a local Orthodox rabbi.
“Today it would be almost unthinkable that an Orthodox rabbi and I would be signing the same contract,” he said.