Former Rockville Center rabbi Dr. Barry Dov Schwartz worked alongside a Nazi hunter. He marched for civil rights in Washington, DC He served as a chaplain during the Vietnam War. These stories and many more of his exciting adventures and experiences are chronicled in his new book, “A Man of Spirit: A Rabbi Navigates a Half-Century of Sweeping Change,” which was released January 25.
“I thought to myself, it’s a good time now that I’m retired that I’m just trying to put something together of all the adventurous things that I’ve been through in my life,” Schwartz said, “ especially my years in Vietnam and 37 years in a congregation on Long Island, and that was the motive.
Those 37 years were spent at Temple B’nai Shalom, now Congregation B’nai Sholom-Beth David, in Rockville Centre. Schwartz, 81, who now lives in North Woodmere, grew up in Boston and later attended Boston Latin School, Boston University, Columbia University, Hebrew Teachers College, Hebrew University and at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
When he was a student in Boston, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to join the civil rights march on August 28, 1963, at the request of his mother, and he said his parents instilled in him the importance of acceptance.
“Both my parents were in love with all people, all colors,” he said. “My dad in Boston worked with people of color and I was ingrained from my youth to love all people and not shut up when faced with problems. That’s something I have always wanted to do and be, not a spectator. And that was a major lesson that my parents taught me, was to be an activist.
He carried this sense of acceptance and tolerance with him into his professional life, frequently emphasizing the importance of interfaith service. He has also served on the boards of Mercy and St. Francis Hospitals, is still active with Friends of Mercy Hospital, and maintains a close association with the Catholic community to this day. Schwartz will also mark his 25th year as Nassau County Police Department chaplain this year and will be recognized in the spring.
In keeping with tolerance, Schwartz wrote frequently about World War II over the years after being emotionally affected by the Holocaust. He learned that many Nazis were not brought to justice, so he began working closely with noted Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who lived in Vienna, in the 1960s. The two worked together for a number of years, and eventually, Schwartz said, he worked with the government and went into hiding as a neo-Nazi, attending their meetings in houses on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he was collecting information about them.
“I wanted to do a job of apprehending the Nazis and bringing them to justice,” Schwartz said. “Not just for revenge, but for justice.”
He added that he couldn’t eat at meetings because the spreads weren’t kosher. He also noted that Wiesenthal had asked him to write the foreword to his book, “The Sunflower”, and he happily accepted.
From 1965 to 1967, Schwartz served as a U.S. Air Force chaplain, rising through the ranks to chaplain lieutenant colonel, and helping soldiers in need of spiritual guidance.
“My role was to serve all faiths and provide support to those who feared going into battle and worried about their families,” Schwartz said, “and I was someone they could call anytime, day or night, when they were scared or anxious about their missions.”
After completing his time in Vietnam, Schwartz joined a congregation in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, for six years, then joined the Rockville Center Synagogue in 1973, where he remained for nearly four decades until his retirement in 2010. He was succeeded by Rabbi Howard Diamond and then David Lerner, who is the current spiritual leader there.
Schwartz and his wife, Sonia, a retired teacher, made their life in Rockville Center. They had three children, Javi, Jonathan and Tamar, and now have five grandchildren, Binyamin, Hannah, Noah and twins Alex and Jesse.
Schwartz said he hopes his book will provide readers with a solid understanding of the inner and outer workings of a rabbi, or any religious leader, and that people will enjoy reading about his experiences. He will host a book launch event at the Rockville Center Synagogue on May 15 and at the synagogue he currently attends, Young Israel of North Woodmere, on May 22. Profits will be donated to each synagogue.
Looking back on his time at Rockville Center, Schwartz said, he quickly came to appreciate the people he served for 37 years.
“In my case, the congregation was very kind and patient and allowed me to stay for so long,” he said. “It was a wonderful congregation involved in many aspects of Jewish life, and many people came to the synagogue to pray and study, and I loved serving them.”
“A Man of Wit” is now available on Amazon.co.uk.