From the moment in 1947 when he assumed the pulpit at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Newark, Rabbi Ely Pilchik began making his mark on the Jewish community, in New Jersey and beyond.
Because his wide and varied interests extended beyond his synagogue to the worlds of the arts, sciences, law, politics, and human rights, he cultivated relationships and created chains of correspondence with some of America’s top leaders of his time.
In mid-March, much of that insightful paperwork went on permanent loan to the Jewish Historical Society of NJ (JHS) thanks to his daughter, Judith Zucker of Morristown. She had previously loaned hundreds of his sermons to JHS.
“These letters are historical and I think they need to be part of our community,” she said.
Seated beside executive director Linda Forgosh at the JHS archives in Whippany, Zucker told NJJN her father “went through phases of interest.”
When he began focusing on science after World War II, Pilchik made contact with Albert Einstein, the nuclear physicist who spent his last years of scholarship at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University.
“My father would go down to Princeton to meet with him. Around our house there were always scientific journals about nuclear bombs,” she recalled. Pilchik “was always trying to figure out the relationship between religion and science. He was very intellectual and he was always reading.”
On one occasion in 1954, the rabbi was curious about an unusual statement that Einstein had made. So he wrote the physicist a letter, one of the many in the collection now housed at the JHS:
“…you said that on the day when you had completed your formula on the general theory of relativity, a fly descended on your piece of paper and you reflected that here you had set down all of the major universal physical laws, as though to say herein is included the key to the secrets of the universe, and yet you do not really know very much about the nature of that little fly,” Pilchik wrote.
Einstein replied tersely that what Pilchik had said was “substantially correct.”
Zucker said she did not recall whether the scientist ever visited the Pilchik home in South Orange, even when he was invited to celebrate a seder there. In one letter to the rabbi, Einstein said, “poor health has compelled me for some time to uniformly decline such invitations…Wishing you and your family happy holidays, I am sincerely yours. A. Einstein.” In fact, many of Einstein’s letters were rejections of invitations Pilchik had extended.
But United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis accepted one for January 1940 in a letter to Pilchick, although neither Zucker nor Forgosh has any idea what the invitation was for. In addition to the one from Brandeis, letters from three other Supreme Court justices — William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and Benjamin Cardozo — are also on loan to JHS.
The rabbi was a proud Democrat who would sometime inject politics into his messages from the pulpit. On one occasion he received a note from Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois who had just won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1952. He wrote to thank the rabbi for his support, saying, “I assure you that my constant prayer will be to prove myself worthy of your confidence and good will.”
“People revered him from the pulpit,” said his daughter. “During the presidential election of 1960 he would tell them, ‘Don’t vote for Nixon.’ As the war in Vietnam raged on he would sit on a chair in his bedroom, watch the TV, and literally fight the war by talking back to the television.”
As a representative of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, Pilchik was on hand for the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Thank you letters from both statesmen are part of the collection Zucker has loaned the JHS, with Begin expressing “profound thanks for your warm and good wishes for my good health.”
President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord in 1978, wrote Pilchik that “I am grateful for the help my administration received from the Jewish community.”
Partly because she was too young to understand much of the rabbi’s political networking, and partly because of his modesty, Zucker said she didn’t know about the work her father was doing. “He never said ‘I met with so-and-so today.’ It was as though he had met with the Joneses next door,” she said. “He was humble. He would say ‘I am going out to dinner tonight.’ He never said ‘Oh, my God, I met with Anwar Sadat.’”
The Pilchik collection also includes letters and autographs from other luminaries, ranging from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, to actor Clark Gable, pop singer Perry Como, and comedian Jack Benny.
Pilchik spent the last six years of his life at Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange. Before he died in 2003 at the age of 89, “he was very intimately spiritual within himself, but he never imposed that on anybody,” Zucker said.
To Forgosh, the loan of the Pilchik papers is a significant addition to her organization’s archives. “It is significant to us as an example of how our Greater MetroWest rabbis keep their congregants informed about local and world events,” she said. “Each letter in Pilchik’s collection seems to humanize him and makes our connections to the rabbi very real.” n