Rabbi Erwin Schild sits in his comfortable North York bungalow, surrounded by evidence of a long life, well-lived. The four books of memoirs and collected sermons that he has written lie on the coffee table, pictures of grandchildren and great-grandchildren line the bookshelves.
Nestled in the lapel of his sport jacket is the pin denoting he is a member of the Order of Canada, awarded in 2001 for his interfaith work among other contributions to Canadian life.
The rabbi emeritus at Adath Israel Synagogue celebrates his 103rd birthday on March 9. This year, the day will be marked quietly. His three children, who all live in Toronto, will be paying him a visit.
He is frail and tethered to an oxygen machine. His speech is quiet and halting. But his mind is still sharp, as he recalls a childhood in Germany, barely escaping the Nazis and then decades spent leading one of Toronto’s largest Conservative synagogues.
For his 100th birthday, the synagogue organized a large drive-by parade. This year, they suggest members contribute to a fund to repair and maintain their Torahs, including one that was dedicated to Rabbi Schild.
It’s a fitting gift for a man who was a young seminary student in Germany during Kristallnacht in 1938 and watched the wanton destruction of sacred books at his school.
“I was unable to go into the building, I was scared to be (near) the armed Nazis,” he recalled in an interview, a few days before his birthday. “They were throwing out of the windows whatever they could find.”
As much as he wanted to rescue the Jewish texts he had studied, he didn’t dare enter the burning building, he said. “They would have killed me.”
Born in Cologne, Germany in 1920, Rabbi Schild has been an eyewitness to the cataclysmic forces that shaped Jews throughout the 20th century.
Days after Kristallnacht, he was arrested and imprisoned in Dachau concentration camp.
In an interview with The CJN a few years ago he recalled “Dachau was daily torture, from the moment you were woken up out of the barrack.”
He was hungry and cold, forced to stand still for hours as the SS guards watched. “If you talked to your neighbours, they kicked you. If you fell, they kicked you again.”
His mother was able to secure his release from Dachau, and he fled first to the Netherlands, and then to England where he resumed his studies. But this respite would prove to be temporary. In 1940, after a year in London, he was shipped to an internment camp in Canada, along with other German-Jewish refugees who were suspected of being Nazis.
Finally, with the help of Canadian Jewish Congress, he was released in 1942, and resumed his studies at the University of Toronto and Yeshiva Torath Chaim.
(His parents and many of his childhood friends would die in the Holocaust. His older brother, Kurt, was one of the last Jews to leave Germany in 1940, while his younger sister, Margot, survived the concentration camps and a death march at the end of the war, and eventually moved to the United States.)
Rabbi Schild earned a BA and an MA in Semitic Languages and Literature, on the advice of Rabbi Abraham Price, who was the head of the yeshiva and had also been instrumental in securing the release of several of the young interned Jews.
“He recommended I go to university. He realized that a successful rabbi has to have a general education, so he made sure not only that I had the benefit of a rabbinic education but also had an academic education and that has helped me.”
By 1947, Rabbi Schild was the rabbi at Adath Israel, the only synagogue where he would ever work.
At the time it was known as the Rumanishe (Romanian) Shul, on Bathurst and College streets, but it wasn’t long before it followed the Jewish community northward to the suburbs.
Rabbi Schild doesn’t hesitate when he recalls his first salary of $1,500, for the year—and the envy he felt toward colleagues who received a house as part of their compensation.
Instead, he and his late wife Laura, bought their newly built home on a quiet street, not far from the synagogue, where they raised three children.
He served the synagogue for two or three decades before anyone thought of offering him a contract, he said. “I loved the congregation and the congregation loved me.”
Under his direction, membership grew from 180 families to 1,900 families: “That was my pride, my wonderful reward for what I did.”
Adath Israel, like other Conservative synagogues, was hard hit by COVID, and is considering merging with another area synagogue. Rabbi Schild keeps abreast of shul politics, but wisely reserves comment. “I’m very glad I don’t have to make the decision. I had almost 70 years as the decision-maker.”
During his time in the pulpit, Rabbi Schild saw transformative changes in Jewish life, beginning with the destruction of European Jewry and the birth of the State of Israel.
“It was almost fantastic to witness a situation that Palestine would become the State of Israel.”
He thinks he was probably studying at the yeshiva when he heard that the United Nations had approved the partition plan. “We wanted to go out of the house and go in the street (and say) that Palestine is going to be a Jewish home for the Jewish people.
“It was ecstasy when the United Nations confirmed. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
He is bothered that today Jews living in the safety of the diaspora feel free to cast judgement on Israel.
“If I want to influence them, then I have to live there.”
He has also seen the troubling rise of antisemitism, more than 80 years after he was interned in Dachau. But it is not a repeat of 1939, he says.
“Not quite. The German nationalism had always a bit of antisemitism. A Jew was always a stranger.”
Still the trend is worrying. “I think it’s dangerous, unless we have the tools, the education, and especially the Abrahamic (faiths), the Christians have to almost take it as a vow to be pro-Jewish.”
In the intervening years, the rabbi worked hard to educate his Christian neighbours, travelling to Germany to speak about the Holocaust and interfaith relations. In 2000, he was awarded the German Order of Merit, a year before he received the Order of Canada.
Receiving Canada’s highest civilian honour was a pleasant surprise, which he didn’t expect, he says. “I’m very pleased to help those who want a better Canada, without antisemitism.”
But the days of meetings and delivering sermons have passed, he reflects.
“Age comes with impairments. My whole life I had to talk, speak and lecture. It’s impossible now.”
Today, he visits at home with old friends and family, accompanied by a gentle caregiver who affectionately calls him “Saba”, Hebrew for grandfather.
“This is a stage of life when… just to be there is an event, an event to be cherished.”
- The CJN Daily podcast: Canada’s oldest Conservative rabbi, Erwin Schild, turns 103