Rabbi Sidney Schwarz was raised in an observant household on suburban Long Island by his parents, Judy and Allan Schwarz, who were models of Jewish communal involvement and commitment. While beneﬁtting from an early exposure to yeshiva education and Torah learning, his most formative experiences were in United Synagogue Youth (USY) and at Jewish summer camps as a staff member at Kfar Masada and Cejwin Camps. His experiences on the 1971 USY Eastern European Pilgrimage to Romania and Russia led Sid to pursue his passion for the Jewish people through political engagement.
Sid attended the University of Maryland, drawn by the proximity to Washington, DC. He was the youngest person ever appointed a Democratic Committeeman on Long Island and was eager to pursue a career in politics. Politically active as an undergraduate, his championing the cause of Jewish studies left the most enduring mark on his life. Although he majored in history and political science, Sid organized the campus to lobby for new courses in Jewish studies. He served on the committee to hire the ﬁrst full-time faculty member in Jewish studies; an ofﬁcial Jewish studies major followed shortly thereafter.
Sid worked his way through college as a youth director and teacher at several local congregations. Feeling that this work was more his calling than politics or law school, he enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC). Sid held a student pulpit at Beth Israel of Media, PA, where his interest in re-inventing synagogue life was fully supported by the synagogue membership. A year after his graduation Sid joined the RRC faculty to teach a course on “Alternative Communities.” That course would eventually mature into his important book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews Can Transform the American Synagogue.
After earning a PhD in Jewish history at Temple University, he moved to Washington with his wife, Sandy Perlstein, to assume the post of Executive Director of the Jewish Community Council. Here he was able to pursue his longstanding interest in Zionism, intergroup relations, and social justice. He served as an organizer of the historic Summit Rally for Soviet Jewry in December 1987.
Sid was nonetheless impatient with conventional approaches to Jewish life. Taking a considerable risk, in 1988 he left the Jewish Community Council and founded two institutions. With several local families, he established Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD, which he led for eight years, and where he was able again to experiment with his own model of synagogue community.
At the same time, he daringly created an organization, initially without a board or any ﬁnancial backing except his own, designed to integrate Jewish learning, values, and social responsibility—now known as PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. Sid created all of PANIM’s major programs, including Panim el Panim: High School in Washington, which trains Jewish teens to be political activists using the inspiration of Jewish teachings; the Jewish Civics Initiative, the largest Judaically framed community service program in the country; and the E Pluribus Unum Project, an interfaith exploration of religion, social justice, and the common good. PANIM now boasts a staff of ﬁfteen and works in over 100 communities throughout the United States. An avid athlete, Sid’s greatest joy is still playing basketball with his children, Daniel, Joel, and Jennifer.
From Rabbi Sidney Schwarz’s Statements of Motivation and Purpose:
“What is the goal of Jewish civic education? It is the task of telling the Jewish story. This amounts to much more than teaching Jewish history. It is the story of Jewish commitment to the well-being of fellow Jews around the world and of the Jewish commitment to social justice for all of humanity. A people which understands the signiﬁcance of the teaching that human beings are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God, cannot function in the political realm with a sole focus on group self-interest and self-preservation. My main objective in launching PANIM was both to teach young Jews to appreciate the Jewish story of survival, chesed, and justice and to challenge them to live up to that legacy.
“Part of our success with the thousands of students who have passed through our various programs is the fact that we convey the message that we believe in their ability to be agents for positive social change. We tap into a deep well of altruism that is the most precious gift of youth. In a society that so quickly turns idealism into cynicism, Jewish education needs to nurture the best in us. But there is more. I am convinced that even the most disconnected young Jews are predisposed to a message that calls on them to live up to the legacy of our Biblical prophets. Maybe it is ethnic acculturation; maybe it is latent historical consciousness; maybe it is genetic coding. All I know is that any form of Jewish education must capitalize on this inclination.
“My approach to Jewish education is not about having Jews choose between support for People For the American Way or a life of Jewish learning and observance. In that choice, we will lose eight out of ten Jews to Jewish life. Rather, it is about helping Jews see that our immersion in Jewish learning can and should lead to engagement in the issues of tikkun olam. This is the Torah that emerged from the machloket (dispute) on the relative importance of study or action between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40b)—study must lead to action.
“I was convinced that the future of the Jewish people depends on being able to engage young Jews in the issues that challenge our community, our nation, and the world. I am further convinced that it could be done by building on both the teachings of our tradition and the actual track record of the Jewish community in attending to these issues.
“When I have the opportunity to hear from graduates of our programs, to meet them as they pursue their lives and careers, I know we have succeeded at offering them a vision of an American identity that is committed both to the survival of the Jewish community and to making the world a more just and peaceful place for all humankind.”
From his Letters of Nomination and Support:
“In a place where…
“…there were few approaches to show Jews of all denominations that sacred texts and Jewish scholarship can teach us how to think about and solve contemporary problems;
“…no sophisticated and challenging Jewish equivalents of Presidential Classroom and other programs that bring high school students to Washington to observe the democratic process in action existed;
“…no multi-dimensional (service/learning) Jewish educational programs to supplement local programs of formal and informal Jewish education in small and large Jewish communities through the country existed;
“…Sid Schwarz created them!
“Sid Schwarz dreamed and then galvanized a few inﬂuential, experienced, bold Washington communal leaders and convinced them of the importance of his agenda and moved to gain the endorsement of an impressive group of professionals from all over the Jewish world! … He earned the support of major foundations—for many this was their ﬁrst foray into Jewish programming—and built the partnership with other faith communities that led to E Pluribus Unum.”
Dr. Shulamith Reich Elster
Executive Director, Hillel of Greater Washington
“The ﬁrst things that come to my mind in talking about Sid and his talent and success as an educator are: his ability to have a vision and make that vision a reality; his great passion for transmitting the idea that Judaism can change the world for the better; his ability to connect with teenagers—to speak their language, while teaching extremely complex and sophisticated material; the fantastic way his programs are structured—with incredible care and attention to detail; his willingness to take risks; and the long-lasting inﬂuence his programs have had on me personally, as well as on other students who I still know.”
Katz Fellow 1995-96, PANIM: The Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values
“A fresh fourteen years old, I had ﬂown to Washington, DC, from Cincinnati, OH, to participate in the Panim el Panim program. There was no corny icebreaker, no self-congratulatory ‘welcome to our program,’ no redundant reading of rules or rights to our anxious, exhausted assembly. Rather, gathered in groups of twenty, we were charged with a cooperative task: to deﬁne power. The experience was invigorating, powerful in itself, democratic, intriguing, and empowering: an important question had been posed to us, and we were to be the source of the answers…. Struck intellectually, emotionally, and ethically, treated respectfully, and challenged collectively, Rabbi Sid Schwartz’s program had engaged this youngster and a hundred others in the space of twenty minutes.
“Rabbi Sid … teaches in ways that truly change the world not through, but beyond, the students who participate in his programs…. Jewishness is not only for tradition’s sake… learning and living our Jewish heritage may improve the entire world.
“May it speak to the merit of Rabbi Sid Schwarz as an extraordinary leader, inspiring visionary, and masterful educator, that I am but one of the alumni of his Panim el Panim program who is entering the rabbinate.”
Arielle Parker Alumni, Panim el Panim