Chautauqua Society to honor Offenbach


Dr. Harry M. Offenbach, longtime supporter and advocate of the Jewish Chautauqua Society (JCS), will receive the program’s Alfred E. and Genevieve Weil Medallion Award at Shabbat services on Friday, May 30 at Temple Israel.

The prestigious award has been given every two years since 1992 to honor a person who “with selfless generosity and spirit, has singularly contributed to the task of building greater understanding of Jews and Judaism among the different groups who together form the fabric of the American people.” Some of the previous recipients of the award include the teachers and administrators at Whitwell Middle School in Tennessee who inspired and created the “Paperclip Project” and Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the late President of the Union of Reform Judaism.

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“I only regret Harry didn’t get this award sooner,” Temple Israel’s Rabbi Mark Shook said. “Harry is tireless when it comes to fulfilling the mission of Jewish Chautauqua Society. It’s not just about raising money; it’s his commitment to interfaith understanding.”

The JCS was started by Rabbi Henry Berkowitz of Philadelphia to teach Jews about Judaism. That focus changed in 1909 when the program brought rabbis to universities to help Christians to learn about Jews and Judaism. The Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ), formerly known as North American Federation of Temple Brotherhoods, has sponsored the program as their educational project since 1939. Locally the courses are taught by Shook at St. Louis University, Rabbi Howard Kaplansky at Eden Theological Seminary and Rabbi Lynn Goldstein at Fontbonne University.

Offenbach’s involvement with the program began when a friend asked him to teach a class with him.

“One of my dearest friends, Ronald Modras, who was a priest and a professor of theology at St. Louis University, asked me to speak with his classes about Judaism,” Offenbach said.

He has been a strong advocate for the program since that day in 1970.

“The figures are staggering,” Offenbach said. “The program offers 150 accredited courses on Judaism taught by rabbis at colleges, seminaries and theological institutions. We have taught over three million students and donated over 175,000 volumes on Judaism to colleges, secondary schools and prison libraries throughout the country.”

A clinical psychologist originally from Pennsylvania, Offenbach received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Michigan and his doctorate from University of Chicago. He joined Temple Israel when he moved to St. Louis in 1951 and has served on a number of committees locally and nationally and is still very active in the congregation today.

He is also a past president and longtime board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“Harry still takes upper grade students from Temple Israel Academy to visit area churches and mosques,” Shook said.

Shook said Offenbach has a tremendous amount of Jewish knowledge.

“He is not a dilettante when it comes to Jewish knowledge and the study of Torah,” Shook said. “Harry takes great pleasure in doing things Jewishly.”

Offenbach taught that love of Judaism to his three children: Jan Nykin, Sigi Offenbach and Stefan Offenbach. Nykin, who lives in St. Louis, remembers growing up and bringing friends to temple and then visiting other houses of worship to learn about their religions.

“We always talked about religion in our home,” Nykin said. “My father taught us to understand Judaism, who we are and what we stand for, so we could be advocates for our religion. It is part of the fiber of who we are.”

All three of Offenbach’s children remain actively involved in their own congregations and Jewish advocacy, according to Nykin. She said her own kids are involved as well. Nykin said she is so proud of her father and the award is an outgrowth of everything he has believed all these years.

“Dad has always been front and center with Jewish causes, that’s who he is,” Nykin said. “He has a love of Judaism: not just about talking Judaism but living his Judaism.”

Shook agrees Offenbach’s passion for Judaism is extraordinary.

“When Harry speaks about Judaism, it becomes the most exciting thing on the planet,” Shook said. “He has a spellbinding passion so that even people who may be apathetic become enthusiastic after hearing him.”

Offenbach said there will be several special guests present at the award ceremony including:

JCS national president Aaron G. Bloom, JCS national executive director Doug Barden, JCS chancellor Charles Niederman and program representatives from Kansas City, New Orleans and Chicago.

The interfaith community is in much better shape today because of JCS: most significantly because of the training in theological schools, said Offenbach.

“Future priests and ministers have some aspects of Judaism in their vocabulary they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Offenbach said.