Rabbi Joshua Haberman: Viewing the Future Through the Lens of History

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Spanning nine decades and three continents, Rabbi Joshua Haberman's personal history tracks the story of life in the Diaspora during the twentieth century.

We start in 1930's Austria: Haberman was enrolled in the University of Vienna and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was studying for the rabbinate. "I was the last rabbinical student to enroll, in 1937," he recalls. But then came the Anschluss—the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany—and after that, events began unfolding quickly.

"When the Nazis marched in, both institutions were immediately shut down," he says. "I had a lively awareness of the tremendous deadly threat—I could see what was coming. I was anxious to leave." Rabbi Haberman was lucky; he was invited to continue his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1938, and he has lived in the United States ever since.

His family was less prescient. "My parents didn't want to leave—they didn't think the Nazis would go to such extremes," he says. "They thought it would just be a temporary regime, but they were very wrong." His parents lost their business and home, but they were able to come to the United States a year and a half after Haberman. "It was probably the last ship before the outbreak of the war," he says. Thus the Haberman family escaped the clutches of the Holocaust.

Building a Better World
Rabbi Haberman is now rabbi emeritus at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, one of the largest Reform synagogues in the United States. But he also made aliyah in 1995: he and his wife, Maxine, live in Jerusalem nearly half the year, and three of their four children live in Israel full time. It's no accident.

"I was raised in an ardently, passionately Zionist home," he says. "My parents had been very active Zionists. My wife is a lifetime member of Hadassah, and my mother, God bless her soul, was, too." In fact, Rabbi Haberman's mother was active in WIZO, the European predecessor to today's Hadassah, and his extended family was deeply involved as well.

"My cousin Chana Bar-Yisrael who was then 14 or 15, managed to escape on the Kindertransport to England, and from there went on to Israel," Rabbi Haberman says. "She became a founder of Kibbutz Yasur in HaGalil."

It is in Israel that Rabbi Haberman sees Hadassah's efforts firsthand. "Hadassah plays a big role in rebuilding Israel as a progressive and highly effective nation," he says. "Hadassah Hospital is exemplary in the entire world, and medical treatment is an important bridge for developing better relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs—not just in Israel, but throughout the Arab world."

Inspired, the Habermans established a charitable gift annuity of $100,000 with Hadassah. The payments from the gift are a nice bonus, but the driving force behind the donation is his desire to support Hadassah. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his life story, the work Hadassah does to bring children out of risky countries is among the most meaningful to him.

He is "profoundly impressed" by the life and work of Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, and deeply moved by Youth Aliyah. "It has been a shining example of philanthropy," he points out. "I think Jews in the Diaspora have reason to be proud of the work Hadassah does. There is no comparable institution in the Middle East."

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