Early Friday morning, June 15th, I received a phone call telling me of the passing of Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz, z"l, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Despite the heat and humidity surrounding me in Memphis, Tennessee, I felt a sobering chill as I realized a security blanket that had enveloped me for the last eleven years was now gone.
During the 73 years of his life, Rabbi Schertz worked and studied to become a great scholar -- in both Torah and secular subjects. Although privileged to serve as a rabbi, teacher, and leader in varying capacities and locales, he will always be intricately linked to Harrisburg for the 25 years he served as rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation (1983-2008). Though I cannot write a complete biography of Rabbi Schertz, I can share some of the impressions he made on me.
Unfortunately, I never knew Rabbi Schertz when he was strong, healthy, and independent. Of course, I vividly remember meeting him when Layala and I spent the Shabbos before Pesach of 2007 in Harrisburg. The Rabbinic Placement Office of Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America had told me about Harrisburg's storied Jewish community, Kesher Israel Congregation (KI), and Rabbi Chaim Schertz. I also learned that after serving KI as its rabbi for close to a quarter of a century, Rabbi Schertz's body had been ravaged by a rare disease, and he was now in need of an assistant.
Over the course of that Shabbos, I remember being impressed by Rabbi Schertz's scholarship and his determination to continue exercising his mind -- the one muscle he had successfully wrested away from the grasp of illness. The dignity and respect shown the rabbi by KI also made a huge impression on us. It reminded me of our Sages' teaching: "HaluchosV'shivrei Haluchos Munachim B'aron" -- both the complete second tablets of law and the original shattered tablets were placed in the Holy Ark (Talmud, Bava Basra 14b). This teaching reminds us to accord our debilitated scholars the same degree of respect we showed them when they were functioning fully. KI's behavior toward Rabbi Schertz spoke volumes of the congregation's special nature.
Layala and I relocated to Harrisburg just before Rosh Hashanah, in the summer of 2007 to become KI's Assistant Rabbi (or to be more precise, its Rabbinic Fellow), and it was from that vantage point that I developed a relationship with Rabbi Schertz.
That first Rosh Hashanah I felt privileged to sit/stand before KI at Rabbi Schertz's side at one end of the Bimah, while Cantor Seymour Rockoff, z"l, balanced us on the other. Aside from assisting Rabbi Schertz by sharing sermons and various Torah lessons that Yom Tov, I also remember assisting him with his Tallis which kept slipping off the smooth fabric of his Kittel. It was also a struggle for Rabbi Schertz to rise from his chair, and I recall helping him do so throughout Yom Tov. I remember thinking that while so many congregants were honored with opening the Ark throughout that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was honored to physically assist the Shul's “Shivrei Luchos" -- KI's stricken, yet revered rabbi.
After assisting Rabbi Schertz at KI's helm for about a year, in 2008, he decided to retire, and I was tasked with filling the role of the Shul’s Rabbi. At first, I felt overwhelmed by my congregational and communal responsibilities, but Rabbi Schertz made the task feel manageable by assuring me I could always count on his support and/or advice.
Rabbi Schertz loved KI's members and their families, and he was happy to remain involved in their lives even after he retired -- albeit in a different capacity. Though he would remind everyone that he was no longer the Shul's rabbi, true to his word he was always ready to share his advice, experiences, and sharp insights whenever I called upon him (I did so occasionally even after Layala and I moved to Memphis in the summer of 2016). He gladly obliged when I asked him each Rosh Hashanah to direct the Shofar blowing at Shul. I would assist him as he struggled from his pew to the Bimah several times during the two days of Rosh Hashanah. This responsibility was something I looked forward to each year. I strongly believed that having Rabbi Schertz lead that crucial part of the Rosh Hashanah service meant a great deal to him -- and to the congregation he had faithfully led for 25 years.
Rabbi Schertz adored his family ferociously. He loved and appreciated his devoted wife Reva. He was so proud of his daughter Sara, her husband Ronen, and their children in Israel. He shared a close bond with his son David, his daughter-in-law Niema, and their children as well. (Rabbi Schertz treasured the opportunity to sit together with David and his boys in the pews after he retired from the Shul’s Bimah.)
As I mentioned earlier, Rabbi Schertz was a brilliant Torah scholar. He was always eager to enter into a Torah conversation, and it seemed as if there was no area in the vast sea of Torah study with which he was unfamiliar. Quite often, not only was he familiar with whatever topic I told him I was working on, but it seemed as if he had already spent time studying that matter in great depth. This always amazed me. After all, Rabbi Schertz's illness had left the muscles in his hands and arms severely weakened, and it was very difficult for him to access his beloved (but heavy) volumes of Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and responsa, etc. As such, much of the Torah discussions he loved to take part in were based on the intense study he had engaged in years earlier -- a testimony to Rabbi Schertz's powerful memory.
Another aspect of Rabbi Schertz's personality fascinated me. A whole spectrum of people were proud to count themselves among his friends and admirers -- and what an eclectic group that was! Jews, non-Jews, rabbis, scholars, laymen, elected officials, a coroner, judges, lawyers, physicians, craftsmen, musicians, philanthropists, people in great need, soldiers, cowboys, and so many more. How did one Orthodox rabbi in Central Pennsylvania build so many relationships with so many diverse people? The answer, I believe, is that Rabbi Schertz possessed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge blended with a genuine fascination with the world and people around him. This led him to become well acquainted with almost every subject matter he read. As such, Rabbi Schertz was able to have an intelligent conversation with anyone he encountered. Once that individual sensed that Rabbi Schertz had an interest in whatever subject that was meaningful to him/her, it wasn't long before friendships developed. It was through those friendships that Rabbi Schertz was able to draw people from such different backgrounds closer to G-d, Torah, the Jewish people, and Israel. Amazingly, he continued to develop those relationships over the last 13 years -- despite the great pain and illness he continuously experienced.
As much as Layala and I wanted to attend Rabbi Schertz's funeral, we were unable to do so. Thank G-d, we were able to make it to Harrisburg on Monday, June 18th, and we spent several hours visiting and reminiscing with the Schertz family during Shiva. It was surreal to spend so much time in the Schertz home with Rabbi Schertz nowhere in sight. However, after 13 years of caring for Rabbi Schertz with heroic devotion, I'm certain that Reva, David, and Niema will always feel his reassuring presence there.
We concluded our visit to Harrisburg with a stop at KI's cemetery. We felt drawn to recite several chapters of Tehilim (Psalms) at Rabbi Schertz's fresh grave, and to say 'goodbye' to someone who truly cared about us -- and so many others. After reciting the Kel Maleh memorial prayer, we made our way back to our car and slowly left the cemetery. I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude for the many valuable lessons Rabbi Schertz taught me. May his soul be bound in the bond of eternal life.
Rabbi Akiva Males serves as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Memphis (TN). He was privileged to serve Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, PA from 2007-2016. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org