At 100, Rabbi Erwin Schild Looks Back – and Forward

By DAN HOROWITZ

One of Toronto’s most iconic religious leaders celebrated his 100th birthday recently and, despite COVID restrictions, hundreds of community members marked the milestone in a creative, albeit belated manner.

On Sunday, June 7, more than 100 cars adorned with balloons and signs drove by the home of Rabbi Erwin Schild, a name synonymous with Adath Israel Congregation since 1947. Well-wishers honked and shouted greetings from their passing cars.

The rabbi’s actual birthday was March 9.

In 1989, Rabbi Schild retired and was named Adath Israel’s Rabbi Emeritus after serving for 42 years.

Rabbi Erwin Schild
Rabbi Erwin Schild

The significance of living to be 100 is not lost on him

“If there is one terminal that is beyond normal, it would be living to 100,” said Rabbi Schildi, who is passing the time during COVID by reading, studying and responding to countless emails.

“You wouldn’t say 95 or 96, but 100,” he mused in an interview with the CJR. “Also, in one of the rabbinic writings, there are the ages of man mentioned and it goes up to 100. Beyond that, the person is really not considered part of the world.”

Clearly, that’s not the case with Rabbi Schild who, even today, continues to play an important role for synagogue members,many of whom visit him at his home.

“Rabbi Schild has been and continues to be the spirit of Adath Israel,” said Rabbi David Seed, spiritual leader of Adath Israel for the past 17 years. “He was the visionary who helped build the synagogue in its current North York location as a Conservative congregation.”

Rabbi Schild’s impact has been felt by the entire community, Rabbi Seed said, “helping to create the foundation upon which so much of our Jewish community rests, especially regarding interfaith engagement and dialogue. Personally, it is a privilege to interact with Rabbi Schild in so many ways and I look forward to doing so for years to come.”

Born in1920 in Cologne, Germany, Rabbi Schild completed high school and continued his Jewish studies at the Jewish seminary in Wuerzburg. It was a brief respite before Kristallnacht, the pogroms across Germany in November, 1938 that marked the beginning of the end of Jewish life in the country. Like many young men, he was imprisoned in Dachau at the age of 18.

After his release, desperate to leave Germany, he found refuge in Britain as a student at a London yeshiva. But with Britain and Germany at war, thousands of Jewish German refugees, including a young Erwin Schild, were considered security risks and interned as enemy aliens.

He was among those internees – mostly male, young and single – who were shipped to Canada to be interned once again as enemy aliens in prison camps for the duration of the war.

In February 1942, with the help of Rabbi Abraham Price, a prominent local Orthodox rabbi, and the Canadian Jewish Congress, Rabbi Schild and other Jewish students were liberated so they could continue studies in Toronto at the University of Toronto and Yeshiva Torath Chaim.

Rabbi Erwin Schild - University of Toronto graduation
Graduating from the University of Toronto, 1947

In September 1947, the freshly-ordained Rabbi Schild was named the new rabbi of Adath Israel.

The author of four books, Rabbi Schild was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of Germany in 2000. A year later, he was inducted into the Order of Canada for “improving dialogue between the Christian and Jewish faiths, promoting harmony at home and abroad.”

“When I think about me receiving the Order of Canada – especially as someone who arrived in Canada as a prisoner, on a prison ship, it’s like it was a miracle,’ he said. “For me, in due course, to be recognized as an outstanding Canadian, well, I could never have imagined this is my wildest dreams. It was truly miraculous. I am proud to be a good and patriotic Canadian.”

His proudest achievement, among many, was growing the synagogue, the only one he served during a remarkable career.

“I took a small congregation of about 150 families and I forged it into a major congregation of almost 1,800 families,” he noted with a proud smile. “Of course, I had many wonderful and dedicated contributors and lay people who helped with that growth. I am very proud that my name is on the outside of the synagogue.”

Schild Adath Dedication

That growth made physical expansion necessary. In 1965, an addition created more lobby space, school rooms and the western portion of the building, which was dedicated as the “Rabbi Erwin Schild Wing”in 1971.

When discussing recent news and world events, Rabbi Schild expressed his concern over the recent closing of the Canadian Jewish News.

“I’m very disappointed that the CJN is no more,” lamented the rabbi. “I think it’s a dangerous situation that there is no means for our Jewish community to follow what is going on and a place where we can publicize our views and opinions. There needs to be democracy in the Jewish community, and this democracy is endangered when we don’t have the press.”

As for his legacy, Rabbi Schild is adamant.

“I want to leave behind a strong Jewish community as well as a strong, democratic, modern and impartial Canadian society; a society that reaches out to our fellow human beings.”