We were blessed that he was in our midst

Rabbi Gunther Plaut

TORONTO — We are all blessed with the privilege of having had Rabbi Gunther Plaut in our lives, said his son Rabbi Jonathan Plaut in a eulogy at his father’s funeral at Holy Blossom Temple on Sunday.

Senior rabbi at the temple from 1961 to 1977 and a senior scholar at the synagogue after that, Rabbi Gunther Plaut died on Feb. 8 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 99.

“Holy Blossom was blessed for having had him in its midst for 51 years, blessed is the city for knowing such a leader, blessed are the immigrants for having such a champion of human rights, blessed is Israel for having such a strong supporter and blessed is God for having such a loyal servant,” Rabbi Jonathan Plaut said.

Born in Germany, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, a scholar and writer, was a law student at the University of Berlin in 1934 when the Nazi party came to power.

He moved to the United States the following year, and came to Toronto in 1961 after serving as a U.S. army chaplain during the war, and a rabbi in St. Paul, Minn. He was with the American forces that went into the concentration camps and saw first hand the remnant of those brutalized by the Nazis.

In keeping with the social responsibility he taught from the pulpit, Rabbi Plaut was a former president of Canadian Jewish Congress and of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, He also helped found Toronto’s Urban Alliance for Race Relations and served as vice-chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission for seven years.

Among the many distinctions and community honours that were bestowed upon him, he was made a companion of the Order of Canada, received the Order of Ontario and 19 honorary degrees from universities around the world, including the University of Toronto and York University.

Rabbi Plaut, a CJN columnist for 20 years until 2003, was the author of 26 books, including The Torah: a Modern Commentary, the standard text used today for prayer and study by the Reform movement.

His son said that Alzheimer’s disease turned his father from a learned scholar and loving father to a man who was totally dependent.

“Asked why I would make the trip [so often] to visit him when he did not know us, [I replied] that the answer was simple. We knew him. We celebrate his life and legacy.

“He was gifted with the mind and talent to pursue scholarly work, and he was a person who had tremendous love and respect for humankind. “

Everything had its place, though, he said. “[To my father], family came first. He was a wonderful problem solver, and he gave us his full attention, even if circumstances distracted him. When we left a discussion, we felt supported and knowledgeable that he was a caring person.”

Members of the community praised Rabbi Plaut and acknowledged the significant contributions he made.

Rabbi John Moscowitz, Holy Blossom’s senior rabbi, said that Rabbi Plaut preached responsibility to oneself and to others. “He lived what he spoke, his word was his deed. He had faith, but understood those who didn’t. He reached across many divides.”

Donald Carr, the president of The CJN, who sat on several community committees over the years with Rabbi Plaut, called him a tower of strength. “He was intellectual, and could also be down among the people. When he got sick, it was a tremendous loss to the community, a loss that has not been replaced.”

David Koschiszky, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said in a release, “Rabbi Plaut served as a forceful advocate on behalf of the Jewish people for decades. He held a particular, pre-eminent place in Canada’s Jewish community, for which his leadership will be missed.”

Bernie Farber, former chief executive officer of Canadian Jewish Congress, called him “a defender of human and civil rights at a time when many didn’t even know its meaning. We stand on the shoulders of such men.”

Federal Liberal Leader Bob Rae said, “Gunther Plaut was a friend to many, and a teacher and leader of great distinction. As the senior rabbi at [Holy Blossom] for many years, he was a source of inspiration and guidance to the Jewish community and the wider Canadian community. A brilliant scholar, he was an active adviser to provincial and federal governments on human rights, interfaith understanding, and social justice and international affairs.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a tribute to Rabbi Plaut posted on the URJ website that as a spokesman for Jewish values and tradition, Rabbi Plaut “was usually ahead of the pack. He said things that others did not want to hear, or were not ready to hear. He articulated unpopular beliefs, and he fought for those beliefs. But Gunther knew no other way. He spoke the truth as he [saw] it, with no apologies and no excuses, but always in a voice uplifted by faith and by hope for the ultimate redemption of the world.”

Rabbi Plaut was predeceased by his wife of almost 65 years, Elizabeth. He is survived by his son Jonathan, daughter-in-law Carol, daughter Judith Plaut, grandchildren Daniel and Amy Plaut, Deborah and David Elias and two great-grandsons.

To view the eulogy of Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut by his son Rabbi Jonathan V. Plaut and colleague Rabbi John Moscowitz click here.