June 15, 2024
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Dr. Kissinger and Mr. Harwitt

Herbert Harwitt at a 2014 Kristallnacht commemoration at Mount Sinai Jewish Center.

Herbert Harwitt and Henry Kissinger had very similar backgrounds. Both were born in German cities, Kissinger in Furth and Harwitt in Berlin. Both were raised proudly Orthodox. They both came to the United States together with their parents before Kristallnacht and settled in Washington Heights, then a bastion of German Jewry. They grew up a few short blocks away from each other. Both these German immigrants enlisted in the U.S. armed forces where they served until 1946. They even passed away within a month of each other, Kissinger at age 100 on November 29, 2023 and Harwitt at age 98 this past Shabbat, December 23.

The extraordinary similarity of their backgrounds only accentuates their extremely different life trajectories. Kissinger was a major player on the world stage. He was a diplomat, statesman, national security adviser and eventually secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Kissinger moved freely in world capitals, engaged in shuttle diplomacy, and held conversations with world leaders on the loftiest matters of war and global security. Kissinger moved away from the Orthodox heritage of his youth and from synagogue life. In the end Kissinger was a deeply polarizing figure. Some of his obituaries speak of him as a war criminal, others as a great statesman.

Mr. Herbert Harwitt, whom you probably never heard of, stood in marked contrast to Dr. Kissinger. Kissinger attended and eventually taught in Harvard University; Harwitt never even went to college. Kissinger moved far from Washington Heights in many ways, both ideologically and geographically. Harwitt never left. Save his time in the U.S. Army, Harwitt never left the confines of Washington Heights for any significant amount of time.

They were so different. Kissinger operated on the global stage, Harwitt operated on the most local of stages, his relatively small Washington Heights community. Although Harwitt did not operate on the grand global stage, he was far from insignificant. He was a really big fish in a pretty small pond. He was a major figure in Washington Heights, serving on the local community board where was a member of its committee on aging. He worked to establish a center for palliative care in the local Fort Tryon Nursing Home in Washington Heights, the home where he eventually passed away.

Unlike Kissinger, Harwitt staunchly maintained his family legacy. His career in the book publishing and printing business, Scribe Press and Harwitt Bindery, was a continuation of his family business in Germany. His grandfather purchased Itzkowitzsky Press in Berlin. Harwitt continued the family business in the U.S.

Harwitt lost his entire family in the Holocaust but he maintained whatever tendentious family bonds there were. Harwitt’s maternal uncle was Rabbi Felix Singerman, who pastored an Orthodox congregation in Berlin. Harwitt had pictures of him and the rest of his departed family in his home and spoke of them often. He maintained a close bond with Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jacobowitz, who although was not directly related to Harwitt was also a nephew of Rabbi Singerman.

Unlike Kissinger, Harwitt never moved away from the synagogue and from the observance of his youth. It is safe to say that Harwitt’s entire life revolved around the synagogue. He was connected to many synagogues in the Heights and labored to keep their memory alive. The plan to demolish the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was murdered, was aborted in no small part through the efforts of the community board driven by Harwitt. However, Harwitt’s involvement in that project was conditional on establishing a memorial to Congregation Emes Wozedek, a German synagogue that met in the basement of that ballroom.

Harwitt arranged for dying synagogues in the Heights to merge with the synagogue that was his true home, Mount Sinai Jewish Center, the synagogue where I was honored to serve as rabbi from 2009 to 2019. In this vein, he arranged for the aforementioned Congregation Emes Wozedek to merge into Mount Sinai as well as Congregation Beth Hillel Beth Israel, whose rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Kahn, Harwitt was intensely connected with. These mergers, combined with the bequests to Mount Sinai that Harwitt arranged, kept the synagogue financially solvent even during the lean years for Washington Heights’ Jewish community and Mount Sinai.

Harwitt’s life was focused on synagogue life in general but Mount Sinai Jewish Center was truly the love of his life. He had his bar mitzvah in Mount Sinai 85 years ago, and until frailty prevented him from walking to shul, he davened in Mount Sinai every Shabbos. He sat in the same seat and took the same tallis and chumash each week. Each year he would read the haftorah on Parshas Shoftim, the haftorah he read at his bar mitzvah. He was the first bar mitzvah boy in the congregation to read the entire parsha. (Alexander Schindler who eventually led the Reform movement was the second.) Harwitt took his Torah reading in the traditional German intonation very seriously. He at first tried to earn money by laining every week. However, his father made him stop; it was taking away too much time from his schoolwork. Eventually he earned some money by shining shoes on 181st Street. He’d send that money back to relatives in Germany, until there were no more relatives to whom to send.

Harwitt served as president or vice president of Mt. Sinai Jewish Center for two decades. In that capacity, he penned close to 100 articles for the shul newsletter. His articles reflected on the issues most close to his heart, antisemitism and the Holocaust. His articles were deep and scholarly. He read widely on these subjects and his knowledge came forth in the multiple articles he’d write on a single topic, be it the new antisemitism arising in the United States, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the Holocaust.

He was dreadfully worried about antisemitism. Antisemitism was a dark reality he encountered in the Germany of his youth and as he’d often speak about on Veteran’s Day, during the time he was in the U.S. Army. Like many, Mr. Hawitt was alarmed by the recent spike in Anti-Semitism. He spoke often recently about how those younger than him need to recognize the danger that Anti-Semitism presents.

Although not a survivor in the technical sense, Harwitt devoted massive amounts of his energy and resources to Holocaust education. Mount Sinai has a Holocaust library that was dear to many of its older members. Many if not most of the books in that library were purchased by Harwitt. After he retired (over 30 years ago) he would regularly sit at a desk in the library and educate school children about the Holocaust. He would arrange for first-rate speakers to address the shul on Kristallnacht, which was always a major shul event. He was generous with his time and his resources. But almost all his generosity focused on Washington Heights and his beloved Mount Sinai.

In August 2001, Moment magazine published an article about the declining Jewish community of Washington Heights. In that article, Harwitt was quoted in an almost fatalistic way about the decline of the community. In his words, “In 10 or 15 years we will be but a page or maybe a paragraph in history. It is sad, but it is true.” Truth be told, Harwitt was wrong. He proved himself wrong.

In 2004 or 2005 young singles began to move into Washington Heights. They were attracted by the then-low rents and the easy subway access to anywhere in the city. This group at first davened in an apartment on Friday nights. However, they soon outgrew that apartment and shopped around looking for a shul. For a variety of reasons, the shuls in the Heights did not accommodate them. However, Harwitt almost single-handedly welcomed them into Mount Sinai. At first this group davened downstairs in the shul. But it was only a short time before they moved upstairs and reinvigorated Mount Sinai and the Washington Heights Jewish community. Harwitt was wrong in Moment magazine. The Jewish community in the Heights survived. Mount Sinai Jewish Center is now not only financially solvent, but it is vibrant. All this is because of Harwitt.

On Sunday, at his funeral, all those who attended loved Harwitt. All spoke of his tremendous devotion to the Heights and to his cherished Mount Sinai Jewish Center. Harwitt left the world beloved by all those who knew him.

A few weeks ago, when hearing of Kissinger’s death, Harwitt said, “Well, I guess I outlived him.” It is fair to say that Mr. Herbert Harwitt, who remained rooted in his Washington Heights community, in his values and in Mount Sinai, his beloved synagogue, and who left the world beloved by all those who knew him, outlived Dr. Henry Kissinger in many ways.

Rabbi Ezra Schwartz is currently a Rosh Yeshiva at YU/RIETS and was the rabbi of Mt. Sinai Jewish Center from 2009-2019.  

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