Joachim Prinz was born in the tiny village of Burkhardsdorf, Upper Silesia on May 10, 1902. His father Joseph, a man of stern demeanor who was generally incapable of intimacy, owned the General Store. By contrast, his mother was an exceptionally loving woman, especially close to him, but also to his two younger brothers. Both parents came from well-educated prosperous families who had lived in Germany for centuries. They were the only Jews in their town of 900. Around 1910, the family moved to Oppeln, a city of 35,000, which was the region’s capital. It had a more substantial and relatively affluent Jewish community. Eventually, his father bought a large dry goods store, which provided handsomely for the family.
Four years later, his beloved mother died after giving birth to his sister. Her death left an indelible mark. The distant relationship with his father, coupled with an inherently rebellious spirit, resulted in breaking the emotional bond with his family and, most particularly, with its way of life. Joseph Prinz, like many other German Jews, was born to a traditional Jewish family but had become highly assimilated. He was part of the Jewish community, but at the periphery. Motivated by a charismatic rabbi, Joachim Prinz’ rejection of his father’s world was expressed by an increasing interest in Judaism, a bond that grew even stronger with his mother’s death. By 1917, he had also joined the Zionist Blau Weiss (Blue White) youth movement, which put him at odds with the vast majority of German Jews. To his father’s great disappointment, he decided to become a rabbi.
By the age of 21, Joachim Prinz had earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, with a minor in Art History, at the University of Giessen. Two years later he was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau and married Lucie Horovitz, the daughter of one of its most renowned professors. Already showing special gifts and a dynamism that contrasted sharply with older, often pompous, colleagues, he was invited to become the rabbi of the then independent Friedenstempel (Peace Synagogue) in Berlin. Only 24, he almost immediately became what the noted scholar Rabbi W Gunther Plaut, who was a child in Berlin at the time, later described as “the county’s most sought-after preacher.” With powerful oratorical gifts and a new style of straight talk about Judaism and subjects of current interest, he was especially attractive to the young, but people of all ages flocked to his Sabbath services. “If you weren’t on line at 7:30 for the 9 AM service,” Rabbi Plaut recalled, “you were unlikely to be admitted to an always overflowing sanctuary.” But his personal life was to be challenged. The death of Lucie at the birth of their daughter (named Lucie in her memory) in January 1931was a tragic reminder of his mother’s death and a devastating personal blow. In May of 1932, he married Hilde Goldschmidt. His new wife who, while younger, had been Lucie’s friend in the last years of her life, became a mother to his infant daughter. In April of 1933 she safely gave birth to the a child of her own, Prinz’ first son, Michael.
An urbane sophisticated and unconventional man, he broke down barriers of formality between pulpit and congregation by ice skating with his students and being personally accessible to their parents in what, increasingly, were becoming troubled times. To the great consternation of community’s conservative rabbinical and lay leadership, the young, and what they considered brash, Dr. Prinz spoke out about the dangers of National Socialism long before Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. For the German Jewish community that that dated back to the 4th Century, Hitler was seen as a temporary episode, as an outsider who couldn’t possibly last in their homeland. To Joachim Prinz, who despite his natural affinity for urban life, had grown up in rural Germany where it was prevalent, anti-Semitism was not something new. To him, it was an ingrained fact of life across much of the country. He understood that Hitler was lethal and began early on to urge that Jews leave the country. Thousands took his advice, many thousands stayed and perished in the gas chambers. Life under Hitler was a nightmare. But throughout the next four years, Prinz continued to preach his message and was the subject of numerous arrests and harassment by the Gestapo.
During his eleven year rabbinate in Berlin, eventually serving the entire community and preaching in its largest synagogue, he founded numerous educational and cultural institutions, officiated at thousands of Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals and wrote seven books including a two volume Children’s Bible and Wir Juden, a warning to the Jews about the danger they faced in the early 1930s. In his final year in Germany he served as editor-in-chief of a Jewish periodical. For reasons that he would never know (perhaps because he was such a popular figure) he was expelled from the country in 1937 and together with his pregnant wife and two children sailed for New York. Son Jonathan was born one month after their arrival in the United States. A few years after the end of World War II they adopted Jo Seelmann, Hilde’s cousin who had lost her parents and was herself imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. Daughter Deborah was born in 1952.
In the fall of 1937, with the sponsorship of Stephen S. Wise, the noted American rabbi and confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt, Joachim Prinz began his life in the United States by lecturing across the country for the United Palestine Appeal about what was happening in Germany. His audiences were impressed with his oratory, but many, in a still isolationist land, rejected his message. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of Cleveland, a political conservative and leader of the American Zionist Organization, was outraged by his “pessimism” which he considered Un-American, and complained bitterly to Wise questioning whether the refugee rabbi shouldn’t find another country in which to live. Wise reminded his colleague that free speech was a touch stone of our democracy. Tragically, Prinz’ warnings proved correct. In fact, they were an understatement of what was to come.
After two years of financial struggle and with a wife and three children to support, Joachim Prinz returned to the rabbinate accepting an invitation to become the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark New Jersey, one of the country’s oldest synagogues. He assumed its pulpit in July of 1939. B’nai Abraham was housed in an enormous building complete with school, social center, gymnasium, swimming pool and a majestic 2,000 seat oval shaped sanctuary with a soaring hung ceiling with unobstructed views throughout. It was an ideal setting for a gifted preacher. His friend and mentor, Rabbi Wise spoke at the installation.
Temple B’nai Abraham had a magnificent home, but it was nearly bankrupt. Built only a few years before the Depression, many of its donors had defaulted on their pledges and only 300 families remained. The debts were staggering and Prinz’ predecessor, forced into retirement, had long since failed to provide his congregation with any reason to be active or to attend services on a regular basis. Joachim Prinz changed that. Fortunately, the year before he arrived, the Temple had engaged Abraham Shapiro, one of the great cantors of the twentieth century, whose voice was often compared with that of Enrico Caruso. Composer Max Helfman was brought on as music director. Shapiro’s powerful tenor giving voice to Helfman’s original music coupled with Prinz’ memorable sermons, dramatically altered the tone of the Sabbath services. It wasn’t unusual for 1000 people to attend on an ordinary Friday night. Prinz invigorated the educational program for both children and adults and forged strong personal relationships with congregants. All of this transformed the synagogue’s dynamic and, in a relatively short time, membership soared along with a restoration of financial health. The outstanding current debt was erased followed some years later by the burning of the mortgage.
Once again Dr. Prinz was a force in a Jewish community. In 1945, as the war was coming to an end, he was asked to become chairman of the Essex County annual United Jewish Appeal Drive. Until then, they had raised no more than $200,000 in any year. With a clear need to help displaced Jews in Europe, the goal was for $1 Million. Prinz was the first and only rabbi ever to take on this task. He devoted enormous energy to the task and, to the astonishment of community leaders, came within a few dollars of the campaign goal. During the campaign, he became intimately engaged with the larger Jewish community and from then on was never again seen as simply the rabbi of an individual congregation.
In the years that followed, Joachim Prinz continued and expanded his involvement with the greater Jewish community, nationally and internationally. He held top leadership positions in the World Jewish Congress, first as its Vice President and ultimately Chairman of its Governing Council. Having reached maturity in Europe, he had a unique understanding of post-War problems there and devoted all of his summers from 1946 until his retirement years, traveling abroad. His first post-War trip included a moving visit to his destroyed Berlin synagogue. He was a director of the Conference of Jewish Material Claims against Germany. His early involvement in the Zionist movement had brought him into contact with the future founding leaders of the State of Israel, most of whom he counted among his good friends. He also served as Chairman of the World Conference of Jewish Organizations.
Perhaps closest to his heart, because he had been a victim of discrimination was the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States. The American Jewish Congress was at the forefront of that effort. He served as its President from 1958-1966. He participated in countless demonstrations and other actions developing close relationships with his counterparts in the African American community. In 1963, he was among leaders of the March on Washington. His speech, alerting Americans to the disgrace of silence in the face of injustice, preceded that of his friend Martin Luther King, Jr. It was, he always felt, a highlight of his life, the culmination of all the things he had stood for throughout his career both in America and earlier in Germany.
Prinz helped his long time friend and world Jewish leader Nahum Goldmann create the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations and served as one of its early Chairmen (1965-7). He wrote three more books and edited several Prayer Books. In his last years as its senior rabbi, he helped his synagogue build and move to a new home in Livingston New Jersey. At its center was a sanctuary without stained glass windows, another of his lifelong radical departures from convention. Worshipers look out into the natural surroundings becoming one with, rather than separated from, the outside. This expressed, he felt, a more open approach to religion consistent with a new time and the needs of the next generation.
Having served Temple B’nai Abraham for 38 years, he retired from an active role in 1977, but continued to preach on the High Holidays for several more years. Together with Hilde, he spent the final years of life in their little cottage in Brookside, New Jersey — in a sense returning to where he began, a small country village. Joachim Prinz died September 30, 1988.
Reprinted from: http://www.joachimprinz.com/biography.htm